Blazing a college path for farmworker families

By Douglas Esser
As Upward Bound director in Yakima, Washington, Catalina Alvarez-Villanueva helps low-income and first-generation families prepare for college. The Yakima Valley native knows the journey well, having gone to the University of Washington Bothell and back home.

Alvarez-Villanueva, who goes by Catti, grew up in Sunnyside, a majority Latinx city in the fertile eastern Washington valley known for apple orchards, vegetables and hops. Her parents, migrants from Mexico, divorced when she was young. Her mother works as a hairdresser, and her father worked in agriculture. Catalina Alvarez-Villanueva / Courtesy photo

Her father pushed education. “He was very much into getting good grades,” said Alvarez-Villanueva. Her older sister Vanessa Alvarez set the bar as an excellent high school student who went to the University of Washington in Seattle.

Alvarez-Villanueva said she struggled in high school and sometimes skipped class. With her boyfriend, Joseph Villanueva (now her husband), she became pregnant her senior year. She remembers a difficult conversation with her father who made her promise to go to college, despite the baby. She attended Yakima Valley College (YVC) Grandview for two years. When she felt guilty about not spending more time with her son, Julian, she wondered, “Is college for me?” Then her father died from an accident. She thought, “OK, I’ve really got to finish college for my dad, for my son and for myself.”

She was encouraged to enroll at UW Bothell by her older sister who worked in admissions. Vanessa Alvarez now is the associate director of the UW Graduate Opportunities & Minority Achievement Program.

Joseph Villanueva also enrolled, and both received financial aid from the Husky Promise program. Both majored in Society, Ethics and Human Behavior, and they graduated together in 2013. Alvarez-Villanueva’s younger brother, Eduardo Estrada, continues the UW connection as a second-year student at UW Bothell.

Alvarez-Villanueva especially loved taking classes from Associate Professor Janelle Silva in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences and Professor Wayne Au in the School of Educational Studies. With other student activists, she helped create what is now the Latinx Student Union. Her most memorable moment was a special graduation event for Latinx students in the North Creek Events Center.

“I was able to bring my whole family,” she said. “All my siblings were there. They saw me. My son saw me graduate with my husband. Two months later we got married. It was just special.”

With encouragement from Silva and Au, Alvarez-Villanueva enrolled in the Master of Education program. She also continued working for the University in positions that advanced her career. As an undergraduate, she was an admissions adviser and recruiter, with a focus on rural, low-income students who would be the first in their families to earn a four-year college degree. As a graduate student, she worked for the College Assistance Migrant Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

After receiving her M.Ed. in 2015, Alvarez-Villanueva returned to the Yakima Valley as the site director for the Ready to Rise program. It mentors Yakima Valley high school students. Since June she has been the director of Upward Bound, a federal program at YVC. The program helps high school students from Sunnyside, Granger, Wapato and Toppenish make the transition to college. Over the summer, she took more than 30 students on college tours, including trips to Seattle and Spokane. From her own experience she knows what they’re thinking and feeling.

Joseph Villanueva is now a social worker with state Child Protective Services in Yakima. The family enjoys living close to relatives and watching their son’s basketball, baseball and football games. Fulfilling the promise to her father, Alvarez-Villanueva considers her college degrees a huge achievement.

“I’m very appreciative of YVC, UW Bothell and all the professors and friends and colleagues I was able to meet,” she said. “I was blessed and privileged to be able to go to school and to complete school — what it’s allowed me to do for my family, the valley. Without college, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

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