When Cinthia Alvarez graduated from Kennewick High School six years ago, she had no hope for the future.
She knew she could get into college. She had a 3.8 grade-point average and was active in student clubs.
But Alvarez, who moved with her family to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 12, was an undocumented immigrant.
She had overcome challenges, including learning to speak English well enough that she was out of second language learner classes by the time she moved from Amistad Elementary to Park Middle School.
But college just seemed impossible.
Alvarez was getting ready to move back to Mexico when someone with the College Assistance Migrant Program told her she could attend Columbia Basin College without being a citizen or a green card holder.
Now, at 23, she is a Washington State University Pullman graduate and a soon-to-be U.S. citizen.
She has spent the past year helping other students reach for the same dream. This fall, 23 of her students will start school with enough financial aid and scholarships to make college a reality.
“I know what it is like to be a person that had no hope,” Alvarez said. “I don’t want people to have to go through that.”
Growing up, Alvarez said she felt like she was a citizen even though she didn’t have documents to show that.
“I know that I belong here,” she said.
Alvarez said her parents felt bad that they could not provide her with the papers that could make her a legal resident. They spent many years and about $10,000 on attorneys and other expenses so their children could become documented.
Finally, just before she started CBC in 2009, her papers came through. She had to make a quick trip to Mexico so she could cross the border and return as a green card holder.
This week, Alvarez passed her citizenship test. It took her some time to save enough to pay the $1,000 in fees.
“I have worked so hard for that paper,” she said. Now all she needs to do is take the oath.
Alvarez, an AmeriCorps volunteer, has worked as a youth resources specialist based at WorkSource Columbia Basin for a year.
“I meet students that have no idea that they are able to go to college,” she said.
Angel Barragan, 18, a Chiawana High School senior, said he had no clue about financial aid. Alvarez helped him apply and get help paying for CBC. He’s also working two jobs to cover his living expenses.
His mom is a single parent and his dad is unemployed, so he knew he would have to find a way to cover college on his own.
“Now I am going to be able to go to college because of (Alvarez’s) help,” he said.
Alvarez is one of those people who does exactly what she says she will and is always open to just chat, said Angel, who plans to study business administration.
After meeting Alvarez, Angel convinced two of his friends to seek her help.
And she was able to help his friend Kenia find enough aid to also attend CBC. Kenia, 17, a Chiawana High School senior, plans to study nursing and eventually transfer to WSU Tri-Cities.
She is the first in her family to attend college. Going is not something she thought was possible. Because Kenia, who has lived in the Tri-Cities since the second grade, is undocumented.
“I wanted to be a nurse, but I am not from here. How can I go to school?” Kenia asked.
Her mom was able to help her apply and receive a deferred action and work permit. And Alvarez helped Kenia apply for Washington State Need Grants, which the state recently made available to undocumented students. Alvarez said it’s not something many people know about.
And it can be hard for some teens to explain financial aid and various other aspects of college to their parents in Spanish, Alvarez said.
First-generation college student Yadira Solis, 17, said her parents have been supportive but they weren’t sure how to help.
The soon-to-be Kennewick High School graduate is headed to Alvarez’s alma mater with nearly all of her college paid for. She plans to study athletic training and occupational therapy at WSU Pullman.
Alvarez will finish her year of service soon and head to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley. She graduated from WSU Pullman with degrees in comparative ethnic studies and women’s studies, specifically focusing on youth.
She wants to continue that focus when she pursues her research-based doctorate in Chicana feminism.
Even though she’s headed away from the Tri-Cities, Alvarez said she plans to return one day and continue to work with Tri-City youth.