Isidro Chavez’s graduation from Washington State University Tri-Cities is a tale of perseverance.
He moved from Mexico to the U.S. with his family at the age of 3 and spent his childhood in a migrant labor camp in central California, where he struggled to get help with school work.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have any toys. Just dirt,” the 24-year-old said.
But May 9, he’ll be among the nearly 350 graduates of the Class of 2015 when they walk into the Toyota Center today for commencement, a testament to Chavez’s drive to create a better life for himself in his adopted country and also of the support and encouragement he received along the way.
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“It took a lot of time and patience, but I’m very proud of him,” said Maria Pantoja of Walla Walla, his fiancee.
Chavez’s family came from the village of Las Jicamas. He, his three siblings and mother, Adela Chavez, were often separated from his father, also named Isidro Chavez, who worked as a farm hand in California. Sometimes two or three years passed between his brief visits home.
The whole family migrated to the U.S. in 1993, settling in the Camphora labor camp outside Soledad, Calif. It was an amazing place with a tight-knit community feel, Chavez said, and it meant the whole family was back under one roof.
However, the camp was destitute and sometimes dangerous, as there were occasional escapes from a nearby state prison. The escapees sometimes would try to break into homes to hide.
Camphora also was isolated, making it difficult to participate in school activities or get help after classes, Chavez said. His parents, neither having finished elementary school, were encouraging but unable to help with homework. It was through the founder of a local charity that Chavez received the help he needed.
At age 15, Chavez secretly filled out an application for low-income housing in Soledad for his family before approaching his father about moving so he could be closer to school.
“He was a little angry at first but he realized it was the best choice,” Chavez said. “I wanted to be in the city. I wanted the opportunity.”
He was able to get good grades, become a naturalized U.S. citizen, graduate from high school and be accepted to San Jose State, but his family’s fragile finances forced him to drop out after a year. He started attending Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif., and worked to pay for school.
It was about this time that he connected with Pantoja, a girl he’d met on a trip to Mexico in 2005, via social media. Their relationship grew and she encouraged him to move to the Tri-Cities, where she lived, to finish school.
Pantoja, 24, also was born in Mexico and emigrated to the U.S. as a child. Her uncle ended up marrying Chavez’s sister, creating more opportunities for them to interact and get to know each other.
Pantoja said her fiance’s accomplishments are inspiring to her and makes her all the more motivated to go back to school once they are established.
“It’s like a puzzle; it’s all coming together,” she said.
Chavez enrolled at CBC in 2011 and earned associate degrees in business administration and innovation within a year. He wasn’t even considering going for a bachelor’s degree until one of his professors, Eric Johnson, who teachers at the community college and WSU Tri-Cities, encouraged him to take a tour and offered to help him secure financial aid.
Chavez began attending classes at the Richland campus in fall 2012, pursuing a degree in management operations. It was still a struggle, though, as he needed to work to make ends meet. He spent about two years working for a home improvement store before university advisers suggested he pursue a paid internship.
He applied to the Department of Energy’s Office of River Protection for a brief assignment last summer modifying contracts and other work. His supervisor, Marc McCusker, said he knew from Chavez’s résumé that he’d be a good fit but Chavez exceeded expectations.
“His knowledge of computer data systems was way superior to what we had,” McCusker said. “Whatever workload we threw at him, he tackled no problem.”
McCusker and others were so happy with Chavez that they kept him on through the 2014-15 school year. They also secured him a spot with another DOE contractor upon his graduation.
He and Pantoja are engaged to be married in October. They’ve bought a home in Walla Walla and he’s been commuting back and forth to the Tri-Cities for school and work.
But today, he’s just relishing the accomplishment that took so long and so much effort to achieve.
“It all comes to chasing your dreams,” he said.