Meet NYC’s 2020 graduates—from aspiring actors to first-generation 'Dreamers'

A kindergartener missing his teacher. A med student graduating early to fight COVID-19. These grads are emerging into an uncertain world.

Photograph by Elias Williams
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Desire Colindres was born and raised in Honduras and came to the U.S. at age 14. She’s the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college. Due to coronavirus, her graduation from Lehman College was postponed. Instead, she tuned into the countrywide “Immigrad 2020 Virtual Commencement," which celebrated young graduates like herself who were able to stay in America through the DREAM Act. Now, Colindres is attending virtual job fairs, doing online interviews with a recruiter, and hoping to put her business degree to use. “It feels good to accomplish something I wanted so bad and I waiting so long for,” she says.

Photograph by Elias Williams

Meet NYC’s 2020 graduates—from aspiring actors to first-generation 'Dreamers'

A kindergartener missing his teacher. A med student graduating early to fight COVID-19. These grads are emerging into an uncertain world.

Bianca Colon, a senior at the High School of Art & Design in the Bronx, is both the youngest and first of her four siblings to graduate from high school. What’s more, as senior class president she was selected to give the commencement address. All that changed after New York City schools shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Colon couldn’t believe it. Then, graduation switched to a pre-recorded virtual ceremony, meaning her mother would miss her only chance to watch a child of hers graduate high school in real time.

“My mind was always: Go to college, get a masters, start my career,” Colon says. “I never really thought graduating high school was going to be so important to me."

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Sissell Gaviola comes from a long line of nurses and surgeons. After years spent as a competitive kickboxer, the 23-year-old first-generation immigrant just graduated from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics—a rebellious move in her family. When COVID-19 pushed her ceremony into the fall, it brought back memories of the music-filled barbecues her family would throw for graduations when she was a growing up. But she’s hopeful about her future and the flexibility that remote opportunities offer: “I can basically work wherever I am,” she says.

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Instead of finishing rotations for his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree at the New York Institute of Technology, Brian Geraghty went to work. "All at once I feel like we had a switch in our understanding: This is a reality, this is a real threat and it's here." He completed a quick online course offered by the school and graduated early to join a COVID-19 response team. But first, Geraghty's wife made him a tasseled cardboard cap and he celebrated on a Zoom call with friends. Then, he spent six weeks at a hospital on the frontlines of the pandemic. This crisis, he says, "is something that we have been training for."

As the lockdown in New York stretched from March into June, schools scrapped their commencement plans and started from scratch. Celebrations for the class of 2020—from preschoolers to medical students—have taken many forms.

At P.S. 55, a public elementary school in Queens, four-year-old Anaya and her brother, five-year-old Israphel, advanced from pre-K and kindergarten with a festive car parade so they could wave at their teachers. At the New York Institute of Technology, Brian Geraghty opted to skip his last gastroenterology rotations and complete an online course that allowed him to join a COVID-19 response team.

“A lot of us in medicine have this overwhelming sense of duty,” says Geraghty. This crisis, he says, “is something that we have been training for.” He celebrated graduating with friends over Zoom in improvised regalia made by his wife: a bathrobe and a cardboard cap with a tassel. On the day of his actual commencement, Geraghty was already treating COVID-19 patients, so he streamed the program on his phone.

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After graduating from the High School of Art & Design in Manhattan, Bianca Colon will study cartooning at Syracuse University. But first, as senior class president, she was supposed to give the commencement address. But as schools in New York stayed shut through the pandemic, the graduation switched to online. "I lost it...it sucked," says Colon, who is the only one of her siblings to graduate from high school. "I mostly think about what it means for my mother," she says, who won't get to see any of her children walk across a stage to get their diploma.

As photographer Elias Williams crisscrossed New York, meeting the graduates of the coronavirus era for this portrait series, he reflected on the academic rites of passage he’d gone through between kindergarten and college.

“I thought about my family cheering me on—they knew how hard I worked up until that point,” he says. “And really, when you go to a commencement you’re celebrating for yourself, but you’re also giving them an opportunity to celebrate with you.”

For some, school next year may be online. For others, career plans have been frozen by the bleak job market. Yet despite the surreal circumstances surrounding the class of 2020, Williams found them overwhelmingly optimistic. “The general outlook is that things will pass and everything will be OK,” he says.

For the students graduating amid a pandemic, he adds, “it’ll be a year you won’t forget.”

Elias Williams is a New York based photographer whose work honors underrepresented people in the United States. Follow his work on Instagram.