Justin Roberts comes from Atascadero, California, an inland small town with dry rolling hills punctuated by oak trees. His mother works there in food service at the local hospital. Roberts, a first-generation college student who graduated in May, chose Penn in part because of the academic freedom it offers and in part to experience a different culture, he says. “Growing up on the West Coast my entire life and in that small community, I wanted to go to the East Coast and see what it was like living in a city with all of the diverse perspectives and people that that would entail. That would be an enriching experience, in addition to the college experience itself.”
Roberts was planning on majoring in chemistry but pivoted to political science and economics after his first semester. “It was interesting going through the different ways that people think and view the world, just everyone else’s different lens and how that interacts to form different political interactions and systems,” he says.
During his undergraduate years, Roberts played the clarinet in the Penn Band. “Every year that I could I was playing or walking in the Penn Commencement.” Finally graduating himself in May was “a surreal experience,” he says.
For the ceremony, Roberts chose to don the regalia of the cultural centers he interacted with, wearing the rainbow tassel from the LGBT Center, where Roberts worked as a program assistant, and later getting involved with the Queer Alliance, a cord from the Greenfield Intercultural Center, and a stole from Penn First Plus, both of which provided support to him as a first-generation student.
In the coming fall, Roberts will attend Penn Carey Law School, thanks in part to a panel about navigating the graduate school process hosted by Penn First Plus, where he heard other first-generation students speak about attending the Law School. “That was a really valuable experience,” Roberts says. “I could actually apply that to my real life.”
The regalia “was nice because you were able to wear multiple things,” Roberts says. “I feel like it added something. Graduation was all about the culmination of the last four years, so being able to show off all the different parts of the Penn community that I interacted with was nice to be able to do. I was very happy to have everything there.
“The ceremonies were a bit emotional, walking in a crowd, being able to see the four years of hard work,” says Roberts. Like many, he says he struggled with his mental health over the pandemic but “was able to come back a stronger person,” he says. “I started trying to make more time for me and to accept that sometimes I needed to take a break. That I had my own limitations, and when I met them it wasn’t necessarily a failure on my part.
“It was a mentality shift, that I could do things and that I was enough,” Roberts says. “When things went wrong, it wasn’t because I myself was a failure. Though there were mistakes made, I could grow from them, rather than be consumed by them.”