Wearing the outdated class ring she ordered years ago along with her cap and gown, Veronica Rivera looked out in awe at the crowd of 30 people waiting to greet her.
It was Dec. 8, the fall 2018 graduation ceremony, but it was also a moment of triumph for the many family friends and University staff who supported her during her eight years of personal and academic struggles.
They had all come to know her by her nickname, Vero, and for the bright flowers she wears daily in her hair and her shining smile. But, on that day, it was nearly impossible to hold back tears — for both Vero and her loved ones.
She looked into the crowd, smiling at each person as she struggled to not cry. When she finally caught sight of her mom in the crowd, Vero quickly walked, almost running, up to her, taking her into her arms.
That’s when the tears came. They fell down Leticia Rivera’s face and soon down Vero’s, as the two hugged each other for several minutes.
As Vero moved towards other people in the crowd, the tears continued.
“She’s not an emotional person,” Vero said before hugging a friend. “She’s not allowed to cry.”
In another hug, Vero looked up before tearing up all over again.
“Don’t do this to me,” she said.
Watching her daughter, Leticia Rivera pointed to the cotton balls decorating her daughter’s graduation cap and told Vero’s roommate Deana Libby a story of their family picking cotton in the fields of the Rio Grande Valley. Vero’s grandpa, pictured on the cap in a black and white photo, had been the fastest cotton picker, she said.
They then exchanged jokes about how Vero’s bejeweled cap — decorated with flowers, of course — couldn’t be missed in the crowd.
“I couldn’t really see much from far away, but as soon as Vero walked onstage, I could tell it was her because of the cap. It was blinding,” Libby said laughing.
But Vero, a first-generation college student, almost didn’t make it to the graduation stage.
Growing up in San Benito, Texas, Vero was an over-involved child. In high school, she joined band, the drill team and even the wrestling team, mostly upon the coach’s suggestion when she went to cover a wrestling match for the yearbook.
She was excited by any opportunity to learn. But Vero said she also joined all these activities to escape difficulties at home, such as her complex relationship with her mom, who was hardworking but struggled with alcoholism.
This complex relationship with her mom also drew Vero close to her grandpa, who she describes as her “everything.” With the support of her grandpa, relatives, school counselors and teachers, Vero made decent grades, though she admits she “never went above and beyond to get an A.”
In her high school English class, she was assigned an essay for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, a scholarship for minority college students, during the fall. But Vero waited until the spring to type her essay on an electric typewriter since her family didn’t have a computer.
But answering the prompt about hardships was easy since she had “enough of those to write about.” The program thought so, too, so she earned the Gates scholarship along with her acceptance to UT.
Arriving at UT in the fall semester of 2010 as a political communication major, Vero appeared to have a bright future on the Forty Acres. Like she did in high school, she quickly got involved on campus, working with the Multicultural Engagement Center and eventually becoming an orientation adviser.
But she encountered a series of events that would complicate her path toward a college degree.
It didn’t take long for the stress of college and her family life, including sick relatives and financial constraints, to add up. During her second semester at UT, Vero was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She tried to cope and continue with school that semester, but one week before her finals, her grandfather passed away back home.
Being unable to say goodbye to her grandfather took a toll.
“I just remember losing a lot of hope and faith,” Vero said. “I had had people pass away before, but he was the person I was the closest to out of everyone in my family. Losing him was just very difficult.”
Going back home became too painful for Vero, so she stayed in Austin that summer. But as she tried to cope with the loss, Vero said she also began drinking more heavily at parties.
Her next seven years at UT were a blur, riddled with more personal and academic struggles — sexual assault, two more hospitalizations from her declining mental health and financial hardships after she lost her Gates scholarship.
These circumstances led Vero to take multiple medical withdrawals or course load reductions and, in some cases, fail her classes. By 2014, her expected graduation year, it became evident she wouldn’t walk the stage that spring.
Vero struggled to ask for help, but during this time she began opening up to University staff like Brandelyn Flunder, the director of the Multicultural Engagement Center.
“I don’t think she necessarily ever vocalized that she was not graduating. There was always a plan in place, but as the years progressed those plans changed a lot,” Flunder said. “I was more concerned with, ‘how is she feeling if she’s letting mom down, if she’s letting her organizations or advisers down,’ and how she was kinda dealing with that.”
Flunder continued checking in on Vero, who was now hoping to graduate in 2015 or as soon as possible. To make that a reality, Vero would have to get straight A’s in nine communications classes and pass all other classes to maintain her financial aid
She worked closely with her professors to try to accomplish this, but balancing coursework with her full-time job proved difficult. She failed one class in spring 2017.
Unable to afford school without financial aid and with a plummeting GPA in the College of Communication, Vero began losing hope in her ability to finish her degree.
But one day, a friend suggested she change her major to education since she was already working to be a teacher through the UTeach program. Vero was skeptical, but a degree audit and a meeting with a College of Education adviser in the fall of 2017 revealed she was roughly 70 percent complete with the degree plan.
With the help of the adviser, Vero mapped a plan to return to UT and graduate by spring 2019 by taking a couple of classes every semester. In the following spring, she took three classes and worked full-time, but she finished with all A’s.
“I had a 3-point-something,” she said, laughing. “That was amazing. I was taking care of my health. It just felt like things were moving in a direction to where there really was a light at the end of the tunnel.”
With renewed hope, Vero wanted to earn her degree as soon as possible.
“At that point it really was just a matter of how hard or how fast was I willing to get to to that light, which for me that light was December,” Vero said. “It was now. It wasn’t next spring. It was now.”
But it wasn’t an easy feat. In September, Vero experienced another sexual assault.
This time, however, she worked closely with the Title IX office to cope with the PTSD and reached out to professors if she missed class.
“I refused to withdraw at all costs,” Vero said. “This semester has been the most vulnerable I had to be and I knew that I had to if I wanted to graduate.”
“I owed it to myself.”
On the day of Vero’s graduation, Flunder woke up not “too hot,” but she rushed from her house in Manor to the Bass Concert Hall.
“I was like, ‘I can’t miss it,’” Flunder said. “I wanted her to make sure that she knew that I’m going to be there for her every step of the way.”
Flunder arrived just in time to sit in the back of the auditorium. She couldn’t see much, but she waited, camera in hand, to hear Vero’s name be called out.
“I just started crying,” Flunder said. “Everything flashed back in my mind. All the conversations we’ve had, the lunches I’ve treated her to, all the times she’s come in (my office) crying, all the times I’ve checked to see kinda how she’s doing.”
Julio Cana, a 2015 UT psychology graduate, also made his way back to campus that day for Vero, who he befriended as a summer orientation adviser.
“She was always there to listen and give advice if you needed it, and I’m grateful for that,” Cana said of his friendship with Vero. “I’ve definitely seen how involved she is in her community and how she inspires people without really even knowing it.”
The graduation itself was brief; Vero’s walk, which included a brief dance onstage, lasted roughly 30 seconds and the entire ceremony ended in less than an hour. But it was an “irreplaceable” moment.
“I couldn’t believe that it was actually and finally happening,” Vero said. “Like finally all the hard work, all the times that I wanted to quit, all the tears, like family sacrifices, everything — it was finally and actually happening.”
And Vero made sure to honor everyone who helped her reach her goal. She carried the memory of her grandpa and deceased relatives on her “blinding” graduation cap.
“That was a time and place for me to be proud of my skin, my roots, my ancestors — everything that makes me me,” she said. “It’s my accomplishment. It’s our accomplishment, so there’s no reason for me to not be bold that day or any day.”
She also visited their graves during Thanksgiving break, taking some of her graduation photos there.
“You have no idea how much I wanted my grandpa to be there,” she said, her voice cracking. “I wanted to show them ‘look, I really did it! I wasn’t lying. I didn’t let you down. I stuck to it and I really did it.’”
Taking off her graduation sashes and stoles after the ceremony, she placed them on the shoulders of her mom and uncle.
“Putting the stoles on them was me kind of saying ‘thank you for everything. I know I say it but maybe I don’t say it enough,’” Vero said. “I appreciate everything and I would not have made it to this point if it were not for them.”
For Vero’s mom, the gesture made her daughter’s graduation a family achievement.
“For her to have put them on me and her uncle, it means she’s proud of us,” Leticia Rivera said in Spanish. “The years of waiting were worth it. She finally made her dream, graduating, a reality. She did it.”
It may have taken Vero almost twice as long as other students to earn her degree, but Flunder said Vero’s journey is the biggest success story she’s ever witnessed.
“I think that her success is in her perseverance,” she said, tearing up. “For someone to have so many challenges and so many obstacles to graduating and have their mind set, that that’s what they’re going to do — not just for themselves but for their community back at home, for the people looking up to her — I think that’s the true definition of success.”
And Vero, who is now preparing to teach in Austin and eventually go into education policy, wouldn’t have it another way.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason. I don’t know the reason, but I’m graduated now,” she said. “I feel like I’m at the right place at the right time now.”