For a lot of families, attending college after high school is a tradition going back generations. Sons and daughters carry on their family’s academic legacy as a matter of course, often choosing to attend the same university as their siblings, parents and grandparents did. However, for other families the notion of college is a brand new concept and one that may seem unattainable, especially among ethnic minority students who are the first in their family to even think of going to college. This is the impetus behind “Shades of Purple,” a student conference at University of Washington to encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue higher education as well as to give them the opportunity to experience the UW campus and all it has to offer. Participants meet future classmates, learn about campus programs and discover the diversity and unity that exists within the UW community.
This past summer, Fife High School’s Academic Support Specialist Vanessa Lindgren accompanied 12 of the high school’s incoming seniors to attend “Shades of Purple,” and the experience is one that the young people said they would always remember. Attending were Andres Mauricio (Hispanic/Latino), Betty Chipman (African American), Emanuel Aguero (Hispanic/Latino), Kheng Rowen Lapastora (Filipino), Ray Sigala (Hispanic/Latino), Shayla Chandler (African American), Sierra Campbell (Native American), Vanessa Trinidad (Filipina), Zachary Wong (Chinese American), Sayarpreet Walia (Asian Indian), Matthew Campbell (Native American) and Aiyana Joseph (African American).
“Sometimes I encourage students to go even though they may not want to go to a four-year college…just to give them a taste of being on a college campus and motivate them to pursue a four-year degree,” Lindgren said. “Some students are intimidated maybe about going to a four-year university and being on this big college campus, especially minority or first-generation bound students, so it’s important for them to meet other students of color who are in college pursuing degrees and to know that they have that support. When you’re the first one in your family to go to college, it’s good to connect with other people who are in that same boat as you.”
“It was breathtaking,” said Vanessa Trinidad, who had never been on a college campus before her visit to UW. “All the buildings and the scenery and just everything of it were so nice. It’s somewhere I want to be. It has such a good medical field and that’s what I want to do – I want to be a midwife and I thought UW would be the perfect school to go to for that.”
Sierra Campbell (Crow Nation) is interested in pursuing an education in dentistry, and her visit to the campus helped solidify her commitment to see it through.
“No one in my family had graduated or gone to college, so there wasn’t a big pressure on me to get good grades to get into college,” she said. But when thoughts turn to her reservation in Montana, Campbell sees a real need for young Native Americans like herself to reach for greater things.
“I looked at the kids there and none of them are graduating, none of them are going to school. Ten percent of Native Americans go on to college, which is so low and so sad. I believe that if I can do it and go back to my reservation and help them, it will be an inspiration for them to see that if I can do it, they can do it too and hopefully start a chain reaction to bring my people upward instead of down.”
Amid the campus tours and meeting new people, perhaps the most powerful experience the Fife seniors had was during the writing portion of the conference. The “Shades of Purple” students were required to write an essay that was not only an important part of their application for admission; it led the students to really think about where they are in life, their circumstances and their personal story of overcoming obstacles to now being the first in their family to go to college. For some students, it was an emotional moment to really sit back and assess how far they’d come.
“One of the counselors read mine and she started tearing up and talked to me outside, a heart to heart moment, and we both started crying, so it was neat that I could have that experience there,” Trinidad said.
For her essay, Trinidad wrote, in part: “The day I found out my parents never graduated or went to college, my perspective and attitude was forever changed. These series of events became my biggest motivator to push through circumstances in order to reach accomplishment. … I think this is why I strive so hard to do better than I even think I can because I want to succeed. I know I can do better than my parents and I see myself accomplishing so much. Attending the University of Washington will be the reward of my life to show not only my family but also human beings just like me that no matter what situation and no matter who makes you question your life; if it is worth it or not, dreams can be accomplished. Education saved my life.”
Campbell wrote of how, at 16 years old, she was on a one-way path to self-destruction. “I lived day-by-day, school one day, party the next, and kick it with the local gang after that. Although my present seemed flawless, my future was becoming dimmer. I was living up to every stereotype made about Native Americans and education. My high school classes were bare minimum and completing high school was the last thing on my mind. I had lived my entire 16 years of life like this, but it only took a mere afternoon for this all to change.” First to spark that change, Campbell danced the jingle dance at the Muckleshoot Labor Day Powwow, which was her living prayer. “I believe dancing at that powwow opened up a door and invited the Creator to come in and guide me towards the next path of my life,” she wrote. On the way home from the powwow, her car caught fire and destroyed everything in it, which Campbell perceived as a real wake-up call, that physical possessions mean nothing when your spirit is in poverty.
“Everything was gone, my car, my money, but most importantly my ‘perfect’ life.” This was her epiphany. “One year later I am a changed person. I am now driven and determined to succeed. I went back school and have maintained a 3.7 GPA and was accepted onto the honor roll for my junior year. I now care about my future and plan to further my education past high school. I want to be first generation of my family to go onto college, and not only college, but a four-year university. I believe I have learned a lot in this past year, and I would love to learn even more at the University of Washington this upcoming fall.”