Pedro Suarez’s mother didn’t get to see him graduate with an associate degree in nursing this weekend.

A former educator, Suarez’s mother would frequently stay up late with her son, bringing him snacks and letting him bounce ideas off her.

“She would stay up late with me. She had no idea what I was studying, but she just wanted to listen to me,” he said. “She said that was my learning style, to talk out loud and teach it to somebody.”

Suarez said her encouragement pushed him through the nursing program. That encouragement ended in July, when Suarez and several of his family members contracted COVID-19.

“Our whole family was hit pretty hard,” he said. “My dad got COVID, my older daughter, my mom and I. Thank goodness, the rest of my family had pretty mild symptoms, but my mom and I had it pretty hard.”

Suarez was hospitalized for three weeks, narrowly avoiding intubation and coming home a shadow of himself. Two days after he was released from the hospital his mother died.

“She just didn’t have the strength to combat this thing so they had to intubate her,” he said. “That was a big heartbreak for us, and all this time I’m trying to figure out if I’m even going to be able to finish school or should I go back. When I got out of the hospital I wasn’t in any shape — like, I didn’t look like myself anymore. I was very weak still; very fragile.”

Encouraged by his wife and the memory of his mother, Suarez did ultimately graduate. He carried a photograph of her to his pinning ceremony Friday.

“It’s a feeling of accomplishment, but a feeling of sadness at the same time. She pushed me all the way, but she didn’t get to be there with me,” he said.

Like many students at South Texas College and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which both held virtual ceremonies over the weekend, graduation marked a bittersweet end to a particularly emotional and trying semester.

“The times we face are like no other, and this commencement is like no other,” STC President Shirley Reed, who announced her retirement in November, said during the institution’s virtual commencement Saturday.

“While COVID may have changed how we celebrate your achievement, it has not diminished your hard work, your dedication and your success in persevering under the challenges you have faced,” Reed added.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey echoed those sentiments in his own online address, painting the graduates in near-heroic terms.

“You’ve just graduated from college,” he said. “What an achievement that is, especially in these times. You know, I’ve always been proud of our graduating classes, and I’m really proud of you. But I have to tell you, I’ve never admired a graduating class more. You have persisted through some of the most difficult times in our history; I mean, we have to go back a century to experience anything like this, to know what it was like.”

Jennifer Brouwen, a UTRGV graduate, watches the university’s virtual graduation ceremony from a cousin’s house Saturday in Pharr. (Monitor photo)

Jennifer Brouwen, a UTRGV grad who earned her Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science this semester, watched Bailey’s address from her mother’s house in Pharr, sitting on the couch — dressed in her cap and gown — with her children while a family member chopped up jalapeños for pico de gallo in the kitchen.

Brouwen has had a particularly difficult semester.

One of her sons, who is diabetic, tested positive for the virus during the semester. Even though he was asymptomatic and completely recovered, Brouwen struggled to juggle her own coursework and her children’s, who were studying from home.

“It was difficult, very difficult at first,” she said. “I was going crazy about how I would focus on my homework and studying and reading, and at the same time getting my son to do his stuff on time.”

Needless to say, Saturday’s ceremony wasn’t how Brouwen expected graduation to go. She broke down last week, crying. Her mother had caught COVID-19 and wouldn’t even be able to watch the ceremony virtually with the family.

Her three kids, who did get to watch with Brouwen, still didn’t get to see the full display of an in-person graduation.

“Everything that I have worked for and that I want my children to see, they weren’t able to see because I didn’t get to walk the stage,” she said.

Brouwen said she’s proud of her achievement, something she tried to instill in her children Saturday.

“We tried to make the best of it,” she said.