Juggling parenthood and her own studies was already hard to balance, but it became a challenge to survive for Itzel Ramirez Tapia as the pandemic transformed her and her young daughter’s education.
Samantha, 5, required near-constant attention and help navigating the world of online learning. Ramirez Tapia spent mornings and afternoons overseeing her daughter’s school work before turning to her own virtual assignments from the University of Texas at Dallas.
The youngster wasn’t awake most nights when her mom caught up on lectures or research. But even asleep in another room, Samantha’s presence was the motivation Ramirez Tapia often needed at 3 a.m.
“My daughter, her life is going to be so much more different because of all the efforts, all the sacrifice and hard work,” Ramirez Tapia said. “Knowing that I have a living being that is literally dependent on me and what I do has always been a really big motivator.”
Ramirez Tapia, 30, is a member of the COVID-19 class of graduates, a group whose last semesters were shaped by the disruptions and stressors of the pandemic. They can’t celebrate together with graduation ceremonies, but they are bound by the common challenges they overcame to arrive at this moment.
And within that group are many parents like Ramirez Tapia and Ruba Kuzbari who had to adapt to their own changing classes while supporting their kids.
Kuzbari, another fall UT-Dallas graduate, also looked to her children as a reason to persist in recent months.
She enrolled at UT-Dallas in 2018 to pursue a degree in public affairs with the ultimate goal of starting her own nonprofit. One of her daughters had already graduated college and another was taking classes at the same campus, often crossing paths with Kuzbari in a hallway on the way to their next course.
“She would sometimes wait for me to get out of class and introduce me to her friends,” Kuzbari said. “It was really nice for her to motivate me. I felt like all my life was dedicated to my kids, and now they are trying to give back and encourage me, doing what I did for them before.”
Recently Kuzbari, 45, found a different kind of inspiration from her children. She watched as two of her daughters entered the medical field during a pandemic, one as a student and the other as a medical resident in radiology.
As her own shock at remote learning lessened, Kuzbari used her limited free time to support her kids and her husband, who is a cardiologist. She connected with contacts in the restaurant industry and secured donations for first responders and essential workers. Her proudest moment was seeing 9,000 meals donated to hospitals to lift the spirits of weary medical professionals.
Kuzbari’s recent months of work fortified her desire to create a nonprofit post-graduation. She isn’t sure what area she will focus on — often waffling between a love of humanitarian work and a passion for education.
“When I go and volunteer with the homeless, I feel this is my passion,” Kuzbari said. “And then I go to [my son’s] school and help the athletic committee and help build the school, and I feel oh no, this is my passion. … Wherever I volunteer, I feel there is really a need.”
Kuzbari will continue her studies next spring as she pursues a master’s degree in the same field, giving her more time to decide the focus of her future work.
Ramirez Tapia isn’t done with her time as a UT-Dallas student either. She enrolled in a doctoral program and hopes to get her moment crossing the stage as a graduate five years from now.
During the long nights and early mornings of quarantine, Ramirez Tapia often envisioned herself in a cap and gown clutching a diploma as her parents and daughter looked on. In that dream, Ramirez Tapia and her parents were always sobbing at the accomplishment.
“I got my emotional nature from them,” she admits.
She’s the first in her family to graduate from college but realizes her celebration will just be delayed, not permanently canceled.
The entire time Ramirez Tapia’s daughter has been alive, her mother has been a student.
Samantha was there when her mom enrolled at North Central Texas College to study business management. She saw Ramirez Tapia’s passion grow when she took a computer science class as an elective and became excited about a new field. She watched as her mom finished her associate’s degree and transferred to UT-Dallas to continue her education.
When Ramirez Tapia is finished with academia, Samantha will be 10, and her whole life will have tracked with her mom’s career in higher education.
“She probably doesn’t fully understand what is to come for the next five years,” Ramirez Tapia said, half joking that she might not know what a doctorate in computer science means either. “By the end of it she’ll be able to say her mom is a doctor, and she can be one, too.”
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The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.