At a niece's college graduation, expectations met and surpassed

Columnist Helen Ubinas poses with her niece after her graduation from Sacred Heart University.

I was searching for my niece among the hundreds of black caps and gowns inside Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., from the seats that my sister, her mother, had snagged more than two hours before the 10 a.m. graduation.

This was a huge day for my family.

My oldest niece was graduating from college, the first of the nieces and nephew also on track to do so.

Once, I was the first, the only, a distinction I’m thrilled to give up.

What nobody tells you, probably for good reason, is how lonely it can be to stumble through the unknown without a road map.

This was the plan, the expectation: go to college, graduate, lead the way.

I considered the crowd of Sacred Heart University graduates and wondered how many of them are firsts, how heavily the expectations weighed on them.

A message written on someone’s cap, a quote from the television show The Office, seemed to offer a hint: “I declare bankruptcy!” Maybe it was just a nod to a memorable line, but I read it as a nod to the outrageous debt students find themselves carrying after graduation.

Expectations can be tricky. Set them too low and you cheat yourself. Set them too high … I’m not convinced you can ever set them too high, so maybe that’s why I’m miles away and still unable to stop thinking about a group of Philadelphia public school students I’ve never even met.

A week earlier, my colleague Kristen A. Graham wrote about the Juniata Park Academy students dedicating their very first piece of playground equipment -- a basketball hoop. It was a feel-good story, except I couldn’t shake how angry it made me that a hoop – one single hoop – is cause for celebration.

It should shame us all that the expectations of and for kids anywhere in our city are so often so small, so basic.

It’s why I’ve always been drawn to young people who shoot for more despite what is or isn’t expected of them, like Larbriah Morgan.

Morgan was aging out of the foster care system when I met her in 2014, and in danger of not being able to graduate from Temple University. People stepped up to help her, but now, years later, I wondered if it had been enough.

I tracked her down when I got home, nervous at what I’d find. She emailed me back, saying she’d call later – she was in court.

Turns out she's a caseworker for the Department of Family Protective Services, Child Protection Services, in Texas, where her military husband is stationed.

She sounded so different from the young woman whose voice quivered three years earlier when she shared her story to a room full of adults. She was confident, happy. She and her husband are expecting their first child, shopping for their first home.

Graduation was touch and go until the very end, she told me, but she made it.

As hard as she worked to get there, she found herself overcome with pride. She was especially proud that she could be a role model for her siblings, especially her 9-year-old sister.

She wants her sister to visit so that she can teach her something that early on motivated her to want more, to show how much bigger the world is than whatever patch you happen to be standing on.

She’s right about that. It’s one of the pieces of advice I offered my niece in the graduation card I gave her: travel, every and any chance you get. Never settle. Know your worth -- and never let any person or place convince you otherwise. And because I’d be remiss in not reminding her of a Ubiñas family adage passed down through the generations – always speak your mind.

When I finally spotted my niece, I lingered on the message she’d written on her cap. “It’s not how good you are, it’s how bad you want it.”

My winding, bumpy road through several colleges before I managed to graduate is mostly a blur, but what I remember most is how badly I wanted it.

Watching her walk across the stage to get her diploma, I saw how badly she wants even more.

Congratulations, Savannah.