At first glance, Dulce Sigüenza is a typical example of a successful UW student: cheerful, hardworking, and politically involved both on and off campus.
But having immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 and coming to the UW as an undocumented student, it was an uphill battle from the day she was accepted.
“I didn’t apply to anywhere else, because I always knew the UW was the only school I wanted to go to,” Sigüenza said, laughing. “But once I got accepted, all the concerns hit me. How was I going to pay for all of this?”
As an undocumented student, Sigüenza does not qualify for the federal government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), meaning she and her family had to foot the bill for the UW’s tuition on their own.
“My depression kicked in and I started to feel fear and frustration; I was here and I had ‘made it,’ but now I had to make a decision about whether I could even afford to stay,” she said.
Scholarships helped her pay for her first year, but after that, Sigüenza had to take a year at South Seattle Community College so she could save up enough to continue her education at the UW.
It wasn’t an awful experience, but it didn’t feel like home.
When Sigüenza came back the next year, she worked with the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project (LEAP) as an ambassador and spokesperson to pass the Real Hope Act, which helped her afford to come back to the UW. The bill gave undocumented students access to state grants and financial aid after it passed in the Washington state Senate.
Now a senior majoring in psychology, she’s finally found a sense of community and belonging in a school that felt foreign for so long.
“The last few years have been like a roller coaster,” she said.
Financial access to higher education is a tangled challenge, one that Patricia Loera, associate vice president for college access at the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, has worked on for years. Part of Loera’s work has focused on giving students in low-income school districts better odds at getting into the UW.
“There are students from very rural, high-poverty school districts that don’t even offer Advanced Placement classes or four years of math,” Loera said. “When the classes you need to get accepted to the UW aren’t even offered, students with the highest aspirations have almost no chance to get into higher education.”
Loera believes in diversity, and looking at a student holistically, as transformative for both students and communities.
“Only good things can come from expanding educational opportunities. Restricting them continues the ‘winners and losers’ game,” Loera said. “Someone who graduates from college is more likely to vote and engage civically; it’s good for King County and Washington state as well as the student.”
Fisher v. Texas
Diversity is a topic back in the national spotlight. The Supreme Court recently reopened the Fisher v. University of Texas case, which revisited the standards for universities using affirmative action.
In 2008, Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas, arguing that the university had discriminated against her on the basis of her being white.
The University of Texas admits most of its new students under a plan that accepts the top 10 percent of each Texas high school’s graduating class, regardless of race. Narrowly missing that percentile, Fisher argued that the university’s regular admissions process, which considers grades, activism in school, and race like many other universities, unfairly discriminated against her.
The Supreme Court sided with Fisher in 2013, but another challenge made last year has reopened the case, igniting discussions over what the role and scope of programs like affirmative action should play on college campuses.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who sided with Fisher in the original hearing of the case, commented in December that, “[Some] contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced, slower-track school where they do well.”
Peter Nicolas, professor of law at the UW, doesn’t quite agree. He points to the benefits the UW has achieved from focusing on diversity as evidence of its value.
“We have a large and extremely diverse pool of people applying to the UW of whom any could do well,” Nicolas said. “Everybody who’s in the running could succeed; now what we’re trying to do is build a class that brings with it a large variety of perspectives and strengths.”
Nicolas, who teaches classes on constitutional law and civil rights, points out that the benefits of diversity in classrooms are about more than just benefiting individual students. Entire discussions about race, ethnicity, sex, and gender identity are stilted when there isn’t a variety of perspectives to talk about them.
“I have a class where I teach historical and modern treatment of African-Americans, and frequently there aren’t any African-American students in that class,” Nicolas said. “And even when you have one, it’s just not enough. It’s very uncomfortable to be the spokesperson for an entire group of people.”
One of the few
The experience Nicolas described is so common that Lull Mengesha, a UW alumnus, wrote a book about it, titled “The Only Black Student.” While Mengesha graduated back in 2006, many of his observations and critiques are just as relevant today as they were a decade ago.
“I have to talk to majority [white] students in order to continue my education,” Mengesha said in his book. “They are my professors, my counselors, and my teaching assistants. A majority student, on the other hand, doesn’t have to talk to one black student any day of his life if he chooses not to.”
For students like Mengesha, being “The Only Black Student” in class can mean feeling as though they have to play the role of spokesperson for their entire group in class discussions.
Nicolas recalled such an experience that took place in his constitutional law class.
“There was an African-American woman who was extremely intelligent, knew the cases very well, and simply had a very conservative opinion toward affirmative action,” Nicolas said. “She ended up feeling uncomfortable expressing that opinion as one of the few black students in the classroom.”
Washington state schools, the UW included, don’t use affirmative action. Instead, Washington state passed Initiative 200 in 1998, which prevents public universities from granting any preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, or sex.
While supporters of the initiative argued that it favors a more colorblind hiring and admissions process, this can often end up meaning that students of color who are just as likely to succeed as white students, but come from worse school districts, are left behind.
“When we’re talking about SAT scores that are already extremely high and are within a hundred points of each other, we’re splitting hairs,” Nicolas said. “We already have more than enough people who could do well here.”
The importance of diversity extends to faculty as well.
Nicolas said that there are real psychological benefits to seeing someone that looks like you in a position of success and authority.
“When I found faculty members of color, I latched onto them for dear life,” Mengesha wrote in his book. “Having been through situations and struggles similar to yours while they were in pursuit of higher education, they can offer very sound advice on dealing with adversity.”
Finding a home
Sigüenza’s activism and work paid off, and she’s spent the last two years of her college career at the UW. But, she did run into misconceptions and confusion about the nature of the bill — confusion she was not willing to ignore.
While in a sociology class where her professor confused the Real Hope Act with another house bill that offered undocumented students access to in-state tuition, Sigüenza felt compelled to speak up.
“It bothered me because I was actually a part of getting that bill passed,” Sigüenza said as her eyes lit up. “I knew there might be other undocumented students in that class getting the wrong information. I had to step in and say something.”
Sigüenza now works for the Office of Minority Affairs and is a student assistant at the Intellectual House, which opened in March 2015 as a gathering space for the Native American community at the UW.
“Until this facility opened, I didn’t really feel like I was at home anywhere else on campus,” Sigüenza said. “It’s a safe space where I don’t have to pretend to be someone else.”
Ultimately, achieving that sense of community is at the root of what schools aim to do when increasing diversity. So, is the University of Texas in the wrong? To Nicolas, the Supreme Court case comes down to merely whether there’s anything in the constitution that its affirmative action-based admissions process oversteps.
But figuring that out is easier said than done.
“As I tell my students,” Nicolas said, “if this was an easy question, these cases wouldn’t be so controversial.”
Reach writer Alex Bruell at email@example.com. Twitter: @BruellAlex