It’s graduation season, which means an annual walk across the stage that many graduates assume they will make. For others, it’s a miracle.
Rosibeth Cuevas will soon become the first person in her family to graduate from college. But that’s not the miracle.
Four years ago, Cuevas was a senior at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles. She dreamed of going to college in rural Northern California at Humboldt State University, and joined others who would be first-generation college students on a 12-hour bus trip to the school on April 10, 2014.
But the bus never made it.
A FedEx truck crossed the highway median and hit the bus in a fiery explosion. Ten died, including both drivers, two newly engaged chaperones, an admissions counselor and five students. Cuevas was among the survivors.
“I can’t say that it actually changed the way that I saw life automatically. … I suffered a lot of survivor’s guilt,” Cuevas tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “It was honestly really hard to appreciate the second chance that I was given.”
Along with emotional pain, Cuevas struggled with injuries to her spine, neck and wrist. She had fractured teeth and underwent several surgeries.
She has been in touch with the families of some of those who died. One of the students was Ismael Jimenez of Inglewood, California. He was called a hero that day after he helped other students get out, but he didn’t make it.
The students on the bus were part of a spring preview program at Humboldt State that began in 1989 as a way to help low-income and first-generation college students check out the school.
“We were all really excited, we were getting to know each other,” Cuevas says. “I was the only one from my high school who was actually on the bus, but I got to meet a lot of the people that I was sitting next to. We were playing music and singing along. One of the chaperones was in the back of a bus with us for a really long time, telling us about his experience at HSU, and it was really fun.”
That counselor, Michael Myvett, was among those killed. The university established a scholarship in his name to help benefit survivors. A HSU spokesperson said 26 survivors were awarded scholarships to go the school and that six of those students, including Cuevas, are graduating this weekend. Others are still enrolled and will graduate later.
“I don’t keep in touch with everyone,” Cuevas says. “I feel like a lot of them disassociated from the group. … Maybe it was just their way of overcoming it. But I do feel like a lot of the other students say that they suffered from survivor’s guilt.”
Evelin Jimenez, whose brother Ismael died on the bus after cracking open a window to help others escape, says he may have felt the same if he had survived. Ismael’s best friend, Denise Gomez, also died in the crash.
“I know it would have been very hard for my brother if he would have made it and known that his best friend did not,” Jimenez says. “I’m sure he would feel that guilt that they feel.”
Jimenez says she has been in touch with Cuevas and other survivors on Facebook since the crash. She says they shouldn’t feel guilty.
“I wish it was my brother and Denise [graduating] as well,” Jimenez says. “But, to me, I love to see these — I hate calling them the survivor kids — but for these years I love seeing how they continued. They still keep my brother and the rest of the kids that passed away in mind of why they need to continue. I mean it’s honestly a blessing to hear that.”
Cuevas is graduating on Saturday from Humboldt State with a degree in criminology and justice studies and a minor in political science. She says she will think about the survivors on the day.
“Throughout college, besides my family, it’s them that kept me going,” Cuevas says. “It was always in the back of my head. Whenever I wanted to give up, I just constantly thought of them … and I thought about how I still get [this opportunity to do] what their families wanted to see in them, and ultimately I hope that their families can see that in me.”
- More information on donating to Humboldt State’s scholarships for survivors