Persevering through pandemic hardships, two members of the class of 2022 earn their diplomas

Beyond the instability of classrooms and virtual teaching caused by the pandemic, college and university graduates of the class of 2022 had to overcome many obstacles.

This graduation season, thousands of Los Angeles-area graduates proudly heard their names read aloud and took the stage at graduation ceremonies that some universities have held for the first time since the pandemic broke out more than two years ago.

But while senior season tends to be a hopeful time, members of the Class of 2022 celebrate their triumph over months or years of virtual classes, financial hardships, illness, and emotional challenges and setbacks.

Kelly Carland, who has overseen many graduation ceremonies as UC Irvine’s special events coordinator, said this year’s start felt different. Students and faculty alike have looked to personal graduations with a mixture of hope and concern that the next COVID surge or other unforeseen event could push the ceremonies into the background.

“I know these students dealt with so many challenges and had to overcome so much,” Carland said.

For two special graduates this year, obtaining a diploma was not only a sign of graduation, but also a symbol of perseverance for them and their families.

A father’s last wish

Audrie Gomez’s father dedicated his life to providing for his family and his long career as a maintenance worker at Cal State Northridge.

Audrie, 23, was practically raised on campus where her parents met. Her father, who worked there for almost two decades, was nicknamed “Go-Go Gomez” in homage to his speed and work ethic. His colleagues in maintenance were like Audrie’s uncles.

Her parents, both born in the United States and raised in Mexico, did everything in their power to send their three children to private schools and urged them to go to college.

Audrie Gomez, her middle child, graduated high school at 17, spent a year at Pierce College, and then transferred to the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. But living in Lower Manhattan was expensive, she didn’t sit well with her wealthier peers, and Parsons’ business-like culture made her feel like she’d taken a 9-to-5 job.

One day, while she was shopping at Whole Foods and feeling overwhelmed, she called her father.

“I said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to be here anymore.'” Her father replied, “Go home, take care of yourself and we’ll talk tomorrow.”

She went back to her apartment, lugged her groceries upstairs and logged onto her computer. By the time it had taken her to get home, her father had called Cal State Northridge’s admissions department and an email advising her for the fall semester was in her inbox.

“That was the kind of father he was,” Gomez said. “He never said ‘no’ to me. I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘I have everything I want,’ but he always made it work.”

At Cal State Northridge, Gomez joined a large cohort of first-generation college students who make up 60% of the student body, according to the university’s fall 2021 enrollment numbers. First she studied journalism with a focus on public relations. She dreamed of working at Capitol Records and managing PR for famous bands.

Taking courses on the same campus where her father worked was fun. She recalled that her father and his peers would often drive by in their golf carts, shouting “good morning” or asking why she was late for class.

When the pandemic struck, Gomez took most classes from her bedroom. After the first few months of the lockdown, Robert Gomez, then working as a hired plumber, was called back to campus at least once a week as an essential worker.

As his union safety officer, he also played a big role in preventing his colleagues from contracting COVID-19, said Jason Wang, Gomez’s supervisor.

“He made sure everyone came home with their skills intact and really took care of everyone,” Wang said. “He really cared about the campus and the students.”

While Gomez continued his work and kept campus facilities running, virtual classes were difficult for Audrie. In one semester, the COVID stress hit her grades hard.

Then, two weeks before the start of her senior year, her father was diagnosed with aggressive stage 4 stomach cancer. His dream was to make it to spring graduation, but on March 30, in the middle of his daughter’s senior year, Robert Gomez died at home.

Amid the tragedy, Audrie Gomez found the energy to get through the last two months of her senior year.

She looked at her mother, who encouraged her to keep going, and thought of her father’s nickname. Every time she felt scared or like her world was ending, she thought, “You’re a Gomez, you just gotta go, like ‘Go-Go Gomez’.”

On graduation day, May 22, relatives filled her house, showering her with congratulations and questions about the future. When Gomez stepped into her backyard the morning before the ceremony, one of those familiar white butterflies she often watched but never touched was back. After a few flaps around the yard, it drew closer and landed on her nose. It felt like her dad was saying, “I’m here for you,” Gomez said.

As she prepared to leave the house for the ceremony, she felt like she was leaving her father behind. But taking those hard steps forward meant completing her father’s last wish.

“It meant everything to me to be able to give him that and to give that to me,” Gomez said.

Winding path to the end

For years, graduating from high school, let alone university, seemed like a distant goal for Andrew Norman.

On June 11, the 29-year-old attended a graduation ceremony for the first time, after two battles with cancer and a winding road to graduation. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Irvine.

“If you had told me four years ago that I was going to go to the UCI and graduate, I wouldn’t have believed you, there’s just no way,” Norman said.

Norman, who was raised in La Habra as the youngest of nine, recalled an early childhood playing outdoor games and fighting with his siblings. That all changed at the age of 8 when he was diagnosed with leukemia.

Until he was 13, Norman was homeschooled and kept away from contact sports while his friends and siblings played outside. Treatments continued to keep cancer at bay during his early teens.

Entering public high school, he recalled having “chemo-brain disease,” a side effect of cancer treatment known to cause mental blurring and memory problems in patients. While the exact causes are unknown, symptoms can last for years, according to the American Cancer Society.

Norman had problems with math and reading. By the end of his freshman year, he was failing most of his classes.

He had a nagging feeling that his peers knew he was struggling and he took on the role of class clown, Norman recalled.

“Because everyone knew I was doing badly in school, I felt like I had to bring something to the table,” Norman said. “And if it weren’t for my cleverness, it would make people laugh.”

After his sophomore year, he dropped out of high school altogether and immersed himself in a world of 16-hour days playing video games like World of Warcraft and Halo. Two years later, he watched his friends graduate from high school as he cheered from the sidelines.

One day when he was 18, Norman felt a distinct pain in his side. He looked at his mother and said, “It’s back.”

A visit to the emergency room and blood tests confirmed the cancer had returned. This time he was determined to act quickly.

“My motto for this whole treatment was ‘challenge accepted,'” Norman said.

He pursued his cancer head on, sitting for 24-hour non-stop chemotherapy treatments and spending long days commuting to and from the hospital with his mother.

Patti Norman said the three-year period was a “watershed moment” for her son. While battling cancer a second time, Andrew continued to be treated alongside young children at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“He was almost like a role model for her,” his mother said. “He was older and saw what he had gone through at that age.”

After the cancer went away, Andrew Norman said he felt a “different outlook” on life. He earned his GED and began taking psychology courses at Fullerton College.

“I didn’t really care about money or status, it was just like the only reason I want to be here is to help people,” Norman said.

By the spring of 2020, he had graduated from community college, but the pandemic thwarted an in-person start. Instead, his fiancé, Jessica Jaramillo, planned a mini-ceremony, invited friends and family, and gave an inaugural address herself.

He then transferred to UC Irvine and spent much of his time in virtual classes, which he attended from his parents’ garage, which had been converted into a studio apartment, while his fiancée, a fifth grade teacher at LA Unified, Lessons gave the same room.

Norman imagined graduation would feel like a college football player waiting to be drafted into the NFL and having that magical moment of having his name called.

“I worked so hard for it and I wanted it for so long,” Norman said.

Now Norman finally had his NFL draft moment. During the inauguration ceremony for UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, he sat among the orderly rows of students in black robes and blue-and-gold stoles that gleamed in the lights of the school’s basketball arena.

As he rose to go, his eyes were on the stage, undisturbed by a phone screen or name card. He walked slowly across the stage, grinning and pumping his fist in the air a few times before descending the stairs to resume his place among the new graduates.

After the ceremony, he left the arena and hugged his mother, best friend, sisters and fiancee.

“We did it,” Norman said, hugging his mother. Patti Norman smiled at him with glassy eyes. Persevering through pandemic hardships, two members of the class of 2022 earn their diplomas

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