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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

First-generation Latino students making college a family affair

Ofelia Alvizar holds her granddaughter Bella, 10 months, on the Eastern Washington University campus March 11. Behind her, from right, daughters Cristina, Rosa and Maria Alvizar, and their father, Guadalupe Alvizar. The sisters are all college graduates. (Kathy Plonka)

The evening after her parents dropped Maria Alvizar off at Eastern Washington University for her freshman year, she called her mother on the phone and sobbed: “You left me here! How could you?”

Though Alvizar loved learning and had graduated from Othello High School with honors, she insisted her father pick her up every Friday afternoon after math class, and drive her home to Othello, a two-hour trip, and then drive her back again Monday in time for her 8 a.m. history class.

Guadalupe Alvizar did this patiently every weekend. When winter quarter arrived, he said the weather was turning bad, making impossible the weekend trips. He had a hidden agenda. He wanted his daughter to make the transition to college life.

“Study or you’ll work in the fields like me,” he often told her.

So Maria Alvizar adjusted. And thrived.

Maria Alvizar is the first person in her extended family to graduate high school and college. Her two younger sisters followed her to EWU and also graduated with bachelor’s degrees.

In 2010, when all three sisters were attending EWU, their parents moved to Cheney for a year, along with the family’s two youngest sisters.

The Alvizars exemplify what college administrators throughout the country are beginning to understand, and plan for: For Latino students, college is often a family affair.

“It’s going to shake up the status quo,” said Carmen Perez-Frayne, director of EWU’s TRiO Student Support Services, a program that helps first-generation students from all backgrounds. “That’s exciting.”

One recent Monday, the Alvizar family traveled together in the family van, from Ephrata to Cheney, to reminisce about their time at EWU. The family’s three college graduates – Maria Alvizar, Cristina Alvizar and Rosa Alvizar – showed up, along with their mother, Ofelia Alvizar, and the Alvizar family’s first granddaughter, 10-month-old Bella.

Bella’s mother, 20-year-old Ofelia Alvizar, is studying at a community college near Seattle. The fifth daughter, Lupita Alvizar, is a senior at Ephrata High School.

The family settled in chairs and sofas in the cozy TRiO program office of Carmen Perez-Frayne, a mentor to all three sisters.

The baby played and squealed. Rosa Alvizar translated for her parents as the family’s story unfolded.

Ofelia Alvizar, 49, dropped out of school in Mexico at 12 to help her mother sell food in the streets. The formal education of Guadalupe Alvizar, now 58, ended in middle school in Mexico.

The family came to the United States in the 1980s for a better life, which meant migrant work. The older sisters attended seven different elementary schools, following the crops – olives and grapes in California, apples, pears, cherries and onions in Washington.

No matter where they lived while attending school, the parents enforced study rules. No playing or visiting with friends until homework is done. Don’t even think about dropping out.

When Cristina Alvizar considered quitting high school because she hoped to be a nurse but flunked advanced biology, her parents bribed her with rewards, such as hanging out with her friends at the movies, if she remained in school. She retook the biology class and got an A.

“They could never help us academically,” Rosa Alvizar said. “But they gave support in many other ways.”

Maria Alvizar won so many awards at her Othello High School graduation that people joked with the younger girls that no awards remained for them.

But the summer before college, Maria Alvizar panicked. She feared moving away. She had been awarded a four-year-college Rotary scholarship, but she decided to attend a community college near home.

Younger sister Rosa Alvizar scolded her: “You can’t let the scholarship go. You have to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.”

And so Maria Alvizar ventured out to EWU, and after that homesick first quarter, she thrived.

She brought to EWU a chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha, a national Latina sorority that emphasizes academics and social justice.

She availed herself of every resource offered through EWU’s TRiO program. She graduated in 2011.

The sisters followed Maria Alvizar to Cheney. Then the parents arrived, in summer 2010, to be supportive of their daughters but also in the hope their example would rub off on the youngest sisters.

“The two younger ones were more the rebel type,” Rosa Alvizar said. “They needed our help.”

The parents lived with Maria and the younger daughters in a small home off campus. Rosa and Cristina lived together in another house in the same neighborhood. The parents cooked for their daughters, encouraged them through tough classes and their exhausting schedules.

All three sisters worked while in college and were involved in campus activities.

Their mother cooked meals for the sorority and other organizations their daughters were involved in. Both parents helped with Cheney community activities, including a city cleanup.

“Dad drove around and picked people up,” Cristina Alvizar said. “He taught people how to shovel.”

When Guadalupe Alvizar’s health issues – due, in part, from working the fields – landed him in a coma in a Spokane hospital, the sisters took a quarter off to help with his recovery.

“Family comes first in the Latino community,” said Christina Torres Garcia, director of the Ronald E. McNair post-baccalaureate program at EWU. “Yes, career is important. Yes, having good grades is important. But I would never say that having an A in a class is more important than being with your (parent) in the hospital.”

The McNair program helps low-income and first-generation college students from diverse backgrounds pursue advanced degrees. This often means moving to bigger schools in bigger cities. The students sometimes balk at moving far from their families.

Garcia, the first in her extended family to earn a doctorate, tells the reluctant students: “It is true you will be missing some family events, but remember your goal is to get a good job and you can then help the entire family and be a role model. You can have your family and do academia, too.”

The Alvizar sisters know firsthand the pull between family and education.

“One thing Maria and the (sisters) started at the sorority was ‘Noche de la Familia,’ ” Perez-Frayne said. “One night every year, they invited the parents of students. It was a great way to get the families on campus.”

The Alvizar sisters cherish both family and education. All three Alvizar college graduates are using their undergraduate degrees, but they hope for more.

Maria Alvizar, 26, who was a Spanish major, now works in the College Assistance Migrant Program at Wenatchee Valley College.

“We help students who come from migrant backgrounds. When they tell me their stories, I can really relate,” she said.

She hopes to get a master’s degree in adult education or human resources.

Rosa Alvizar, 25, who majored in secondary Spanish education, is a substitute teacher in Ephrata. She also works part-time at Wal-Mart, and her hope is to get a full-time high school teaching job.

Cristina Alvizar, 23, works for a Grant County agency that helps people with disabilities. She hopes to get a master’s degree in social work and help Latino teens.

All three sisters hope to someday buy their parents a home; they have never owned one.

At the end of the long interview, the parents were given the chance to have the final word. What else would they like to say about their daughters?

Ofelia Alvizar smiled as her eyes filled with tears. That was her answer.

Guadalupe Alvizar, translated by Rosa Alvizar, said: “How could I not be proud? They won’t suffer as we suffered.”

But this father’s work is not over – yet. He said, “There are two more I hope follow in their footsteps.”