A student story of pursuing education in Washington as an immigrant
Citlaly Ramirez is a summer intern at Gov. Jay Inslee’s office. This is a story of how educational opportunities changed her life and can inspire others to seek out similar opportunities. Visit the governor’s website to read the Spanish version of this story. Visite el sitio web del gobernador para leer la versión en español de este artículo.
On my first day of third grade, my teacher stood at the front of the classroom and asked me, “What is your name?”
I blankly stared at the teacher. A classmate who sat next to me repeated it to me through a whisper, but this time in Spanish so I could understand: “Cual es tu nombre?”
I responded, “Seet-tla-lee.”
Their conversation faded away and I sat there thinking, ‘What in the world are they saying? Why am I here?’
More than anything, my 8-year-old self felt confused — that’s the word that sticks with me most that day. I wasn’t sure why I had to leave Mexico. All I knew is that I was in a different place, a different country and that I did not speak their language.
That’s the moment that changed my life forever.
After that day, I dedicated myself to learn about Western culture and adjust to my new life while also keeping my own culture alive. I learned how holidays, such as Halloween, are different in Western culture. I learned about American food — like how you eat turkey and mashed potatoes together at Thanksgiving and I learned what a sloppy Joes sandwich tastes like. I learned that wearing a seat belt is more enforced here. I learned English. I was also placed in English Language Learner classes for two years to catch up to my school peers.
On top of so many changes within the first six months of being in Washington, my family also learned that my brother was deaf. That meant my entire family was learning English and American Sign Language while trying to find a home in this new country. Each week, my family traveled from Tukwila to downtown Seattle to learn ASL.
Moving to the U.S. was a decision that my parents made to pursue a better and more fulfilling life for me and my siblings. We had extended family in Seattle, so moving here and connecting with different resources was not as challenging thanks to their help. My dad got a job in construction, and my mom took care of the household and our education. As time went on, my parents started to learn more English — we had to. My dad didn’t finish high school and my mom almost finished while we lived in Mexico but had to drop out because they didn’t have enough money to finish her education. That’s a large reason why I don’t take my education here for granted.
I remember learning about college briefly in Mexico, but didn’t think it was a reality for me until I got to the U.S. After being the first in my family to graduate from high school, my parents wanted me to continue my education and reach for college. As an immigrant who fought to make a new life for myself here, I knew that some form of post-high school education would serve me even more.
“During that bittersweet moment, I also remembered a piece of advice from my mom. She always told me: ‘You may visualize your dream so high up on a mountain that it almost seems near impossible to reach. Instead of trying to make that big jump, walk on smaller stones that will lead you there — no matter what.’”
I also got inspired to go to college thanks to supportive high school teachers such as my career counselor, Sydney Williams. She and my parents were key players in this decision. As a senior, Mrs. Williams sat me down and told me I’d have to pay more than $5,000 every college quarter if I did not receive scholarships or financial aid. I vowed to work double-time to pay for my college plans. My parents vowed the same. We weren’t going to fail because we hadn’t failed yet.
The next moment that changed my life was being accepted to Western Washington University in Bellingham. This meant I could prove to my family that all their hard effort was worth it. It meant I was finally able to use my voice to help future generations that needed inspiration as they stepped into similar situations. But most of all, it meant I could share my story with peers who never knew my struggles, and — in turn — I could find respect for their stories.
I didn’t qualify for federal funding. But I could apply for state funding through the Washington College Grant (which was then called the State Need Grant*).
When we first got here, we were trying to make ends meet. So, it was essential to get as much help as I could on my own without my working parents taking on my college debt. Plus, I wasn’t the only one who needed post-high school education — I had three other siblings that needed to do the same. I started to apply for any available state funds.
I sat with my parents in our living room, surrounded by the cozy colors of our Mexican heritage, when I opened the letter that said I qualified for Washington College Grant.
The grant would fully cover my tuition for three years, offset living costs in Bellingham, and allow me to graduate with no student debt. I know Governor Inslee signed a major education bill this past legislation session that established one of the most progressive higher education investments in the country. One of the largest benefits from that bill is that the Washington College Grant program is going expand even more. That means all qualified students in Washington can attend college for free or at a discounted rate.
“We weren’t going to fail because we hadn’t failed yet.”
When I read the letter, I immediately felt a rush of gratefulness. And saw flashbacks to all the challenges I endured up to that moment. Things like getting bullied in school or being told by “friends” that I wasn’t able to go to college because I wasn’t born here. The difficulties of leaving my home and moving to an entirely new country. Or learning English and ASL at the same time, trying to find my place in this world, and realizing that as the oldest of four I needed to lay a clear path of change for my siblings to follow.
During that bittersweet moment, I also remembered a piece of advice from my mom. She always told me: “You may visualize your dream so high up on a mountain that it almost seems near impossible to reach. Instead of trying to make that big jump, walk on smaller stones that will lead you there — no matter what.” In that moment, her advice became my reality because achieving dreams are a byproduct of patience, effort and taking small, immediate steps to get there.
The grant covered so much of the education cost that it allowed my parents to save money for my sibling’s college education instead of saving for my own. I am so close to finishing my degree and I have my donors, family and Washington to thank for that.
Since I started college, a number of opportunities opened up to me. Today, I’m a summer intern at the Office of the Governor in Olympia as I finish my degree at Western Washington University. I took honors classes in high school and knew that my motivation for working so hard in school was my family, particularly my brother. My parents never went to college and I knew my brother and my other siblings needed a positive role model, in addition to my parents. I gave my first big speech at the annual GeekWire summit surrounded by inspirational and well-known technology leaders in the country. I talked about the importance of women pursuing a STEM degree and the impact of state scholarships. I even got to interview Microsoft President Brad Smith. A big part of being able to do some of this was because I received the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. I took every opportunity that was handed my way with gratitude.
Being a first-generation student put forth a lot of challenges I never thought I could endure. But I have many dreams. And I realized at a young age that if I wanted to contribute to this world, I had to do things that would challenge me. Getting education after high school was one of those dreams.
As a first-generation woman of color pursuing a STEM degree, my voice is essential. I am part of the diversity of America in 2019. My college experience has showed me how to build a platform where you can amplify your voice and, in turn, inspire others to overcome obstacles you once had to endure.
Because of all that, I’m here now and I have something to say.
*The 2019 Legislative session established a statewide college promise program that transforms the State Need Grant into the Washington College Grant so that all eligible students can receive financial aid. The program will be fully implemented in the 2020–21 academic year. The bill gave additional appropriations for this upcoming academic year (2019–20) so that many more students who are eligible for the State Need Grant will receive those funds.