Intubated and unable to talk, Edwin Torres wrote one last message to his younger sister: “I’m proud of you, and I’m sure when you graduate you are going to get a good job.”
Just weeks later, on June 10, 2018, Carmen Torres lost her brother to cancer. She held onto the note from him, which served as a driving force as she continued pursuing her degree at SJC Brooklyn — and as she became a first-generation college graduate in the face of a pandemic.
“This degree has my name on it, but it is not only mine — it belongs to everyone who was behind me, especially my brother,” said Torres, 24, who graduated in May with a degree in human relations and a minor in criminal justice.
For Her Brother ‘Eddy’
Torres grew up in Santiago Rodriguez, Dominican Republic, with her mother, seven brothers and one sister. Fourteen years her senior, her brother Edwin and she shared a special bond. He nicknamed her Lila — no one else ever called her that — and she called him Eddy. He taught her to dance and to be a devoted Catholic, and he always pushed her to do her best in school.
“Eddy was like a role model and father figure, since my father passed when I was 6 months old,” said Torres, who moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was 15. “He didn’t go to college because he had to work, but he always told me I had to.”
When Edwin got sick in 2017, the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong until it was too late. He went into the ICU with stage four cancer. Torres and her family went to see him every morning and every afternoon, all while she was trying to finish up her sophomore year at SJC Brooklyn.
A Flexible and Caring Faculty
“When final exams came, I was able to take some of them from inside the hospital, and I’m still grateful to my professors who made that possible,” Torres said. “Every day after I took them, Eddy used to ask me how I did, and I told him I didn’t know yet because they hadn’t published yet. But when they did and I told him I passed, he gave me the biggest smile ever.”
Graduating During a Pandemic
When Torres earned her degree amid COVID-19, she knew she wouldn’t be able to walk across the stage and receive her diploma just yet, like her brother had planned for her. But her family still wanted to document the cherished achievement.
“Since this is a milestone never celebrated by my family before in this country, they wanted to dress up and take pictures to remember this moment,” said Torres, who, for a while, thought she would never achieve this goal of graduating. “I’m proud to say that I finally did it for Eddy, for me and for all the people that told me that I didn’t need to go to college, that I didn’t need a career.”
Now, Torres is excited to find a job in the nonprofit sector, where she can help other immigrants like herself.
“To a fellow first-generation college student, I would say dream big, make the most of your time in college because you will miss it, and enjoy the ride — the good, the bad, and the worst, because they will be your life experiences,” said Torres, an ACES (Academic Center for English Language Studies) student who participated in the Poder Latino and Go Green clubs. “The reward will be worth it, even when you doubt it.”