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Chicago Student Becomes First Generation Grad Amid Family Challenges During Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Shehrose Charania has kept her eyes on one goal since she began college four years ago.

SHEHROSE CHARANIA: My friends and I, from freshman year to junior year, we would always talk about I cannot wait to be a senior.

SIMON: She dreamed of senior dinners, campus socials, joyful cheers and tears at commencement festivities. Her family was also excited.

CHARANIA: My parents immigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, to Chicago, Ill. They were never able to gain an education, but they always still pushed my sister and I to make sure that we have a better future for ourselves.

SIMON: The pandemic threatened to upend those plans. In her junior year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison shut down its campus. Shehrose Charania lost her job as a resident adviser. She returned home to her parents and her sister and took college classes online.

CHARANIA: We have three rooms in the house. Finding space to do school was difficult. I didn't have a desk or a chair. And it was really hard because I used to get a pillow and prop it against the closet, and I would sit on that pillow and have another pillow for my back and just have my laptop open on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHARANIA: My father got laid off. He was a waiter. And I wanted to help my family to, you know, pick up a job, but my parents didn't let me because they wanted me to just focus on my education. We depended on my mom. She pushes wheelchairs at O'Hare Airport. It hurts, you know, because my mother is a diabetic with preexisting conditions, and she still needed to go to work. The feelings of guilt were always eating me up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHARANIA: My mom started to feel sick. She got tested, found out she's COVID positive. One of the things about virtual classes, or remote learning, is that you could do two things at once. And so I would make food for my mom while I was still in class. You know, if she was coughing, if she was not feeling well, giving her the proper medication. I got COVID as well. You know, I would get up in the morning. I would make myself some lemon tea, drink that, making sure I was OK, go to class.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHARANIA: The professor would ask a question - what do you all want to do when the pandemic is over? The responses students would give would be, I want to travel, I just want to go to a party then, go out. And I had to leave the class because it made me so upset that my family is struggling. Please stop talking about how you wish you can go on vacation because there are people out here that are literally losing their jobs, literally losing their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHARANIA: In the fall of 2020, the university made the decision to open up dorms again. The only jobs that were really offered was being a resident assistant. So in this job, I earn money, I get a food stipend and I get free housing. My parents do not speak English well. That meant that being a student on campus, I was helping with unemployment insurance. And I just remember my father, we were on FaceTime and I saw that his beard was growing out. And it was just very much like he wasn't trying to spend money, you know, things like shaving equipment and shaving kits. So I ended up buying that kit for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHARANIA: The day I graduated was May 8 of 2021. Family and guests were not allowed in the stadium. When I saw my parents after, I saw my dad cry, which I've never, ever, ever seen. Seeing him tear up, just seeing my mom there, healthy and alive, and my sister there just cheering me on just made everything so worth it. It's something that I can never let go of.

SIMON: Shehrose Charania - because of what her family went through between getting COVID, navigating the health care bureaucracy, losing their jobs and health insurance, she is now pursuing a master's in public health policy and also thinks one day she might run for Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUP LISTENING'S "WENN DER SUDWIND WEHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.