The pandemic has led to missed opportunities for many people across the world. For some ex-students, it has meant Zoom graduations and in-home celebrations for the culmination of their long years of studying. Recognizing the importance of graduation ceremonies to women like herself, photographer Aisha Seriki has created a project dedicated to centering those who didn't get to take their spotlight over the past year. 'Ungrads' celebrates the the unseen graduates of 2020.
For some families, graduation is not just the celebration of an achievement, it's a symbol of belonging and of new possibilities. Families that have migrated into the UK with their children often do not see university as an optional choice. Speaking from the migrant experience Aisha tell us, "as a child of the Nigerian Diaspora, further education is a necessary rite of passage, which is to be conquered. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was my mother drumming into me the importance of further education and the freedom that it allowed. It was especially important to my mother because she was robbed of the opportunity to experience it. For my mother, graduation signified that her hard work raising three children alone in a foreign land had not failed."
Though many universities provided students the opportunity to celebrate their achievements at a later date by postponing graduation. Some outright cancelled it. Others turned graduation into a virtual event, with a fleeting YouTube appearance for each student. To some students, for whom graduation means more than just the educational certificate, this was heartbreaking. And for Aisha Seriki, it meant the hard work of her mother would not be marked. Speaking on the difficulty of getting into university, Aisha tells us "at the age of sixteen, I would learn that my chosen life path was hanging by a thread, as my immigration status barred me access from student finance. I was distraught. Here I was - a teenager, with a supposed bright future ahead - yet my immigration and my financial status was threatening a repeat of history and barricading that very future from becoming an actualised reality."
Aware of the shared depth of graduation’s significance for people like herself, Aisha cast 20 POC women graduates, including herself, all of whom are first- or second-generation migrants. She tells us, "for first-gen women of colour, education is a particularly important accomplishment: one which I believe deserves a proper commemoration." All shoots were carried out in a fully socially distanced environment, allowing graduates to have the nearest thing to a true graduation experience as she could make possible.
Aisha spoke with some of the subjects in her project to really understand their experiences and make sure that 'Ungrads' wasn't just about showing a face, but giving a voice. Nare Hakobyan, one of the graduates, shared her frustrations. “Not to be dramatic, but the pandemic has made me feel a little invisible. Almost like I didn’t complete a degree. I have dreamed of the day I will wear a cap and gown but I really didn’t realise how much graduating/having a ceremony meant to me. It just feels like a chapter has been left unfinished. Many goodbyes left unsaid.”
Nadine Reynolds, another graduate shot, takes an optimistic tone. “The pandemic made the University experience slightly anti-climactic, but it also gave me a reminder that sometimes the most important part of an achievement is the journey you took to earn it. My degree alone would not justly represent all that I have learned, experienced and grown into over the past three years in Leicester. Now, I feel like graduation is about more than receiving my degree and leaving University.”
Ungrads is an ongoing project and Aisha is still on the look out for more participants who have had the same experience. Register your interest on her website.
Words by Aisha Ayoade
Cast List and Degree
Aimina Fitzsimons - BA History , Aisha Seriki - BA Global Liberal Arts, Angelica Solomon - BSC International Development, Chelsea Iwugo - LLB Law Jahnavi Inniss - BA Graphic Communication Design, Lauren Boboto - BA Development Studies , Lucy Tun - BA Economics & Burmese, Marie-Aminata Peron - BA International Relations and Politics, Mia Ffyfe - BA Sociology, Miriam Amrani - BA History & African Studies , Monica De Souza - BA Journalism, Nadine Reynolds - BA Sociology & Media, Nana-Ama Owusu- Ansah - MA Economics & Spanish , Nare Hakobyan - BA International Relations & Development Studies, Niha Miah - BA History, Osob Hersi - BA Popular Music, Raha Mahamaoud - LLB Law, Tale Imevbore - Bsc Accounting & Finance,Tayyaba Iqbal - BA History,Thezeeb-Fatimeh Bukhari - LLB Law