How one graduating senior is choosing happiness over desolation in spite of coronavirus

Loyola Marymount University's iconic Sacred Heart Chapel serves as the backdrop for the university's 2016 commencement ceremony. This year, like almost all educational institutions, the university will be holding a virtual commencement because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Loyola Marymount University)

“So...I decided not to.” Even at the age of 21, the young woman I am speaking with has made many difficult decisions. She is making one now, with a mix of trepidation and generosity, in deciding we can have this conversation. My gratitude for her courage and trust is immense. As she tells me later, this is the very first time she has spoken about much of what she is sharing with me. She will continue sharing her story over several conversations.

“Do you want to speak about this openly?” I ask, stressing that the option remains for our conversations to stay between us. Although she is nervous and asks that I use only her first name, she answers, “Yes, I do want to. It might help others.” Her devotion to the Ignatian ideal of being “for and with others” shines brightly in her eyes.

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She wants to claim her story. This is her story.

Sabrina is one of millions of college students from the class of 2020 who was looking forward to graduation when the coronavirus pandemic began mercilessly pummeling the world. She had eagerly anticipated the days of celebration leading up to a splendid commencement liturgy at Loyola Marymount University. She would walk on stage on a beautiful spring morning, framed by the gleaming white splendor of Sacred Heart Chapel and receive her diploma.

She had imagined everything about that moment, most especially the joy it would bring to her lola, her nickname for her grandmother. There would be pictures, there would be hugs, there would be abundant celebration. But what Sabrina and her lola would share in an unspoken way was the knowledge of how difficult a journey it had been to get there. The triumph of this particular graduation belonged to them both, and her beloved lola had come all the way from the Philippines so they could share it.

Sabrina is one of millions of college students from the class of 2020 who was looking forward to graduation when the coronavirus pandemic began mercilessly pummeling the world.

Grief and Disappointment

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When the announcement came that the university would shift to distance learning and on-campus events would not take place after spring break, Sabrina’s mind went immediately to graduation. She sat stunned, feeling like everything was crumbling around her. She called her parents sobbing; all she had worked so hard for seemed obliterated in an instant. Most of all, she grieved what was happening to her lola. After an initial battle with lung cancer, her beloved grandmother had gone home to the Philippines, telling her granddaughter that she wanted to die in her home. Still, their frequent calls centered on Sabrina’s encouragement that she fight to stay well. Lola needed to look to the future, to have that as a goal. “Just imagine coming for my graduation!”

Lola promised. The family put together the funds for her travel, and her grandmother had stayed with relatives since arriving in Los Angeles. However, it soon became clear that she was not well. The inability to be together because of the lockdown added to the sorrow of the lost graduation they had both kept as a promise of hope.

During this last semester of college, Sabrina had tried as hard as she could in her academic work. As her professor, I had noticed her inquisitiveness and read with interest her disarmingly honest and articulate essays. But I had also worried when she missed class, sensing that there was more to her apologetic emails than I knew. That sense started a conversation, one that I hope will continue as we transition from teacher and student to good friends. Sabrina is not just one of the millions of college students missing her graduation, she is one of the many struggling mightily with depression and extreme social anxiety. As we talk about the cancelled graduation, her story of perseverance, representative of hundreds like her, begins to emerge.

I had noticed Sabrina's inquisitiveness and read with interest her disarmingly honest and articulate essays. But I had also worried when she missed class, sensing that there was more to her apologetic emails than I knew.

First-Generation Struggles

Sabrina is the first in her family to graduate from college. She is the first to be born in the United States. She is the first to navigate the tangle of cultures that claim her and pull her in so many directions that at times she has felt like she will break, experiencing that debilitating state of in-betweenness familiar to many children of immigrants.

Years ago, her Lebanese-born father immigrated to the United States alone as a young dancer, but found himself barely able to survive selling souvenirs at a small shop on Hollywood Boulevard. At about the same time, Sabrina’s mother had entered the service of a wealthy family in the Philippines. When that family immigrated to the United States to set up a business, the young nanny was brought with them.

When Sabrina’s parents found each other in Los Angeles, they could not afford a wedding—just a visit to City Hall. Sabrina’s eyes glisten as she imagines someday giving her parents a proper wedding and a party. This young woman has been working and dreaming on behalf of her family her whole life. As we talk, I see the exhaustion in her eyes.

Like many immigrant families, Sabrina’s family made multiple economic sacrifices to send her to Catholic school.

Like many immigrant families, Sabrina’s family made multiple economic sacrifices to send her to Catholic school. Elementary school was difficult, because her parents were insistent that she assimilate and try to not appear different. But she knew she was different. In her lunch bag was food other kids did not recognize and sometimes her words would come out in Tagalog. So much of what was happening around her was difficult to understand, and she could participate in very few extracurricular or enrichment experiences. She felt she should be able to do as her parents wished, to somehow embody the “American dream,” but she was sure she always failed.

Her lola had come from her small village in the Philippines to help care for Sabrina and her little brother, and the matriarch who had never completed high school but was full of insatiable curiosity became the young girl’s lifeline. She taught Sabrina her faith, she taught her to laugh and she enveloped her with every bit of safety she could provide. Yet beyond their tight embrace and the prayers they shared, life was unceasingly chaotic.

For Sabrina, the role of linguistic and cultural translator that so many immigrant children are forced to fill also extended to keeping her family together. It was grueling work, familiar to the second generation in an immigrant family, as so many unresolved traumas linger through life like a miasma. The challenge became to keep her focus on a future where things would be better. She always wanted to serve others, she tells me, and it began with loving and serving her parents.

For Sabrina, the role of linguistic and cultural translator that so many immigrant children are forced to fill also extended to keeping her family together.

Faith and Hope

Once she began high school, Sabrina excelled as a campus minister, leading retreats and service trips and finally feeling at home among more students of color. But while she worked hard with college as her ultimate goal, emotional isolation often closed in on her. One day a classmate shared similar feelings of extreme sadness and explained that this was not something either of them could fix alone. Her friend was going to begin therapy and felt there was help for the very real ache she felt growing within her. Suddenly realizing her own pain was not imaginary, Sabrina felt relieved. They would both seek help; they promised each other.

Once at home, Sabrina reflected on how everything about their family’s life was decided by her father. How would she convince him that she needed to see a therapist? She stood in front of the mirror, self-consciously practicing ways to explain why she needed help. But when she approached him, it did not go well. Her already profound depression and sense of worthlessness were met with derision and the imperious requirement that she simply “get over it.”

While Sabrina worked hard in high school, with college as her ultimate goal, emotional isolation often closed in on her.

Worse, she had to deal with the conviction that if she “just prayed hard enough” all of the pain would simply go away. This filled her with self-recrimination. Maybe, she thought, it was all her fault because her faith wasn’t strong enough. She had failed at faith too. In response, Sabrina threw herself into her studies. Things would be different in college, she told herself. She could survive until then.

When her letter of acceptance to Loyola Marymount University came, it felt glorious, but only for a moment. Declaring her incapable and ungrateful, her father told her she would not be attending college. She would go to work helping the family business. The pain and humiliation made her feel as if she had been erased.

Heartbroken and without any help, Sabrina began researching. She had heard there was a way for one “to end their life,” she tells me, searching for the words to disclose her suicidal thoughts. She imagined going to sleep and never waking up. She began writing notes to the people she cared about to say goodbye. Today, she says she does not know what stopped her. She just remembers “praying and praying and praying.”

She thought about her grandmother and her little brother. She reflected on her parents as being “just people” who had gone through much suffering themselves and how it was impossible for them to know how to be the parents she needed. And at that moment she forgave them. “So...I decided not to end my life.” She remembers pulling herself together, coming out of her room and getting down on her knees to apologize to her father for whatever it was that disappointed him and made him unhappy about her. She begged, “I need to go to college, I worked so hard for this, please don’t take this away from me.” Miraculously, her mother intervened, and Sabrina finally made her way to the university.

Sabrina begged, “I need to go to college, I worked so hard for this, please don’t take this away from me.”

A New Beginning

Her journey of a new life, of seeing a therapist, of becoming involved in campus life was a steep and difficult climb. When we talk about all this during these last weeks of college, she realizes how challenging every single step has been. The depression and social anxiety did not miraculously disappear, and the constant problems with her family and their survival persisted. Even today, she says, there are days when getting out of bed is very difficult, but she has also experienced a change in herself, which Sabrina begins teasing out as we talk.

While studying theology at Loyola Marymount, she found out something she “never knew before...it was okay to be mad at God.” In her traditional Catholic upbringing, she had been taught: “It’s your fault. It’s your fault. It’s your fault,” she tells me, reciting the litany. She remembers starting every prayer with “I’m sorry.” Her eyes drop thoughtfully as she remembers the words of her first theology professor, Matthew Pereira. “He told me,” she recounts as she smiles, “it’s okay to have doubt, and I would be scared for you if you didn’t have any doubt at all, because doubt is healthy.”

Knowing that there was no judgment from God, just love, and that she could take her time finding her way back to this God, Sabrina was able to begin a journey to the renewed sense of self she had been longing for. In the meantime, being angry at God, questioning her faith, searching and seeking—all of it was okay. All of it was good. She was good.

Her big questions now had a place to be asked, debated with classmates and teachers; they did not need to be suppressed. She began to see how her questions were celebrated. In the course she took with me, each student’s own journey served as a vantage point that enriched us all. Talking about faith in this way, with space for questions, finally showed her that “vulnerability is strength; my empathy, my heart shouldn’t be something I hide or I’m embarrassed about.”

While studying theology at Loyola Marymount, Sabrina found out something she “never knew before...it was okay to be mad at God.”

‘Boundaries, Not Walls’

Sabrina knows she is not “there” yet; she needs to continue vigilantly caring for her mental health, and I muse with her that there is possibly no “there” that any of us can get to, just a communal and often difficult journey. As we make our way, we help and hold each other up. Her reflection is mature beyond her years, the fruit of suffering met with faith and the love of one extraordinarily generous grandmother, who I think, may be a clue for Sabrina of who God is.

“I have learned that it is important to have boundaries, but not walls,” she tells me a couple of days before her virtual graduation. “Not needing anyone and being unreachable was not a sign of my strength, it was a reflection of my fear. We don’t need to have high walls around us to feel safe. Though I believe finding comfort in solitude is a crucial part of life, hiding from what I was afraid of was not serving me.”

“I have learned that it is important to have boundaries, but not walls,” Sabrina tells me a couple of days before her virtual graduation.

I can hear years of emotional isolation bursting open in fruitful introspection. “I used to blame a lot of my unhappiness on others, and while I still struggle with my relationship with my parents, I realize I have the power to reframe the pain from my past experiences and give it meaning and value.” She gave herself space, knowing that resentment grows when we force ourselves to remain in painful situations. The first change she wants to make is to know that her “happiness will come from within. Our power lies in how we choose to respond to our pain. Maybe how we choose to talk to ourselves is the very first step.”

After we have taken our virtual graduation pictures, side by side on a screen, a gift she will send her lola, she tells me: “Today, I have made a commitment to myself that even though I am still struggling, I will not stop trying. I will make sure to celebrate my accomplishments—small and all. I will make a conscious effort to be honest with myself with what my needs are, and to trust that I will always pick myself back up.” I hear her lola's unconditional embrace in this young woman’s resolve to love herself. This time of quarantine has reminded her of her creative passions and to be attentive to her whole, a graciously valuable human person, made and sustained by a loving God.

Her final words in our conversation are ones I pray many other young people around the planet will also feel well up within them: “I choose to embrace where I am in this moment. I am proud of where I come from and all that my family has had to overcome, because it has made me who I am.”

Our virtual semester over, Sabrina, her classmates and I pledge mutual care and communication through a summer that may feel isolated, uncertain and sometimes lonely. And when we can see each other again in person, we will continue the celebration of Sabrina’s gift of life and her choice to be with and for others. God is okay with our questions, especially now; we just need to accompany each other lovingly through them.

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