Husky 509

A 509 Husky forges his path to the UW

Johnatan Rivera of Moxee, WA, grew up thinking college was out of reach. People in his community didn’t typically get a degree. There weren’t others he could ask about college or examples for how to make it happen.


Johnatan Rivera

“We’re first generation, we’re undocumented, we’re Hispanics, we’re a minority,” Rivera said. “It was definitely a challenge not knowing how to get from point A to point B. I just knew that I needed to get to point B, and point B was to obtain my education.”

Flash forward to Jan. 10, 2019. UW Impact, the UW Alumni Association’s legislative advocacy program, hosted its annual Legislative Preview event — College IS for Everyone: Making the Case for Higher Ed, with a special focus on the different paths toward getting a degree. Rivera, now a junior at UW pursuing a degree from the Foster School of Business, sat on the stage alongside UW President Ana Mari Cauce and other higher education leaders.

That night, Rivera shared his story — some details of which are unique but many of which are not. Rivera transferred to the UW after earning his associate’s degree from Yakima Valley College (YVC). Last June, the Seattle Times reported that about 25 percent of UW undergraduates are transfer students, and many come from historically underrepresented groups. Like Rivera, a third of UW undergraduates are also the first in their families to seek a four-year degree.

Rivera’s path to the UW

For people in Rivera’s community, connecting the dots between dreams and reality can feel impossible. As they bear the anxiety, uncertainty and emotional toll of being undocumented and an immigrant in today’s political climate, it can be a challenge to dream big at all. They might not be aware of financial aid or resources like the Husky Promise, which guarantees that full tuition and standard fees will be covered by grants or scholarships for eligible Washington State students.

Rivera is showing how attending a prestigious university like the UW is not a privilege of a few, but a path available to many.

Like with many success stories, Rivera made his way to the UW through a combination of individual grit and the support of community and mentors. Through a co-worker, he met Dr. Brock Eubanks, an economics instructor at YVC. Eubanks, a mentor of his to this day, urged him to go to YVC. After Rivera earned his associates degree, Eubanks encouraged him to keep going.

Eubanks invited him to come along to a business competition at the UW. Once Rivera entered Paccar Hall on the UW campus, he knew he had to do everything he could to get to the UW. He liked being in the city. It reminded him of where he grew up in Stockton, CA. The campus was beautiful, and it was close to international business, the area of business in which he knew he wanted to work.

Representation matters

When Rivera got home, he browsed the Foster School’s website. He went from page to page, flipping through the online edition of the school’s magazine. And then something gave him pause. He found a profile of a student, Maria Alejandra Flores Cardenas. Not only was she undocumented like him, but she was from the exact same state and city in Mexico that he was from.

“It blew my mind. I was still in the place of ‘I don’t know if I can – I want to and I can do everything I can but I don’t know yet if it’s possible,’ ” Rivera remembered. “So the fact that I had that reassurance and I knew someone else had done it, I knew it was possible for me to do it too.”

Rivera learned that Noe Valdovinos from the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity was coming to YVC for a college fair. He asked his bosses if he could take a long lunch from work so that he could attend. When he sat down with Valdovinos, he laid it all out on the table. He didn’t know if he could pay for the UW. He didn’t want to apply for the UW and then keep another student from going, when he knew he couldn’t afford it.

“No. You’re applying, you’re applying, you’re applying,” Rivera recalled Valdovinos saying. “You need to trust me. Just get here.”

“Not your typical underrepresented student”

Valdovinos, who is now an advisor at the Foster School, remembered meeting Rivera:

Sigma Lambda Beta

Johnatan Rivera with his Sigma Lambda Beta brothers

“Many first generation, low income and historically disadvantaged students self-select out of the process of applying to UW  …  he was not your typical underrepresented student during a college fair. This is what I saw in Johnatan Rivera: No matter what hardships he faced — and he has had many hardships, being first-generation, low-income, from a migrant working family — his goal of coming to UW was not an option but a must.

“These are the kind of students who are not familiar with the higher education system but are willing to ask any questions and ask for help when they need it. This is what I saw in Johnatan and what motivated me to help him in order to have a smooth transfer process.”

With help from Valdovinos on how to put the pieces together, Rivera entered the UW in fall 2018. He’s studying finance, pursuing a certificate in international business.

Finding community, giving back to the community

Being in Seattle is a “cultural return” to Rivera’s days in Stockton — he likes being surrounded by people talking in different languages, eating different foods. He’s managed the transition back to the city by always keeping himself open, looking for more community circles to join. He just became a brother of Sigma Lambda Beta International Fraternity Inc., whose pillars he connected with: Brotherhood, Scholarship, Community Service and Cultural Awareness.

As Rivera considers his future, looking toward graduation and a career, it’s not just about furthering himself. It’s about family:

“The end goal is to be able to help my parents so that they don’t have to work sun up to sun down anymore. Both of them have been injured. I don’t want them to have to work themselves to death… I’m doing this more for them than for me. It’s a big win for us to be able to say that I’m the first in my family to be able to attend such a prestigious university… They are my motivation, my inspiration, my everything.”