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Division of Student Affairs

HEP essential part of student’s long journey to WSU

Department: Division of Student Affairs

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Perhaps no student has been more patient, persistent, and determined to earn a college degree than Brianda Perez.

In pursuit of a better life, the Washington State University senior from Michoacán, Mexico moved to the United States, learned English, worked long days and nights packing fruit, and earned a General Educational Development (GED), to make her dream of earning a college degree possible.

“I had an active life in Mexico where I took business classes at a university and was surrounded by family and friends,” Perez said. “It was a difficult decision, but I left everything in 2013 to come to the United States and live the American dream.”

She wanted to study communications and only expensive private schools offer that degree in Mexico. Even if she earned a degree in communications there, Perez said the economy is bleak and the prospect of having a successful career in that country seemed impossible.

Leap of faith

Perez and her older sister moved to the United States without knowing anyone and unable to speak or understand English. They first settled in California where her dad frequently traveled to work in the orchards. Before long they moved to Chelan, Wash., to harvest apples, cherries and pears. The days were long and hot and Perez remembers thinking she needed to get a college education. But how?

Perez’ inability to speak English made it difficult to do mundane tasks such as grocery shopping and paying bills. She tried going to night school for a while but the language barrier was too much for her to overcome. It seemed as if her pursuit of the American dream hit a roadblock.

“Then a friend of mine from Wenatchee Valley College (WVC) told me about HEP (High School Equivalency Program) at WSU and the possibility of earning a GED,” Perez said.

A taste of college life

HEP is a federally-funded program that assists migrant and seasonal farmworkers with obtaining their GED as a way to transform their lives.

Even though Perez earned a high school diploma and some college credit in Mexico, the educational systems are so different that WVC told Perez she would need to earn a GED in order to be eligible for college admission in the U.S.

The thought of leaving her sister and father behind to come to Pullman made her sad, but she knew it was an essential step on her journey to a better life. She remembers talking with HEP Director Lori Manzanares on the phone and not only appreciated that she spoke Spanish, but she offered Perez a free bus ride to WSU as well.

“At WSU I was surrounded by interesting and diverse students, it was kind of like a dream for me,” Perez said. “My HEP classes, food, and housing were all free—sometimes it felt like it was too good to be true.”

A WSU trailblazer

After completing her GED in 2015 she did not have money to continue her education. She returned to Wenatchee to live with her sister and worked in an apple packing warehouse from five in the afternoon until four in the morning. She thought about going back to Mexico to be with her mother, younger brother and sister.

In her heart, Perez wanted to return to WSU as a full-fledged college student. In order to make that possible she needed to become more proficient in English to succeed in college classes so she enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at WVC. As a first-generation college student there, she joined the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) which helped ease her transition into higher education. The next year she gained valuable leadership skills as an Associated Students of Wenatchee Valley College student ambassador.

Now feeling much more prepared for the rigors of WSU, Perez picked-up a job as a housekeeper, saved as much money as she could, and finally made the move back to WSU last spring.

She continues to be a trailblazer in Pullman as she works towards earning degrees in journalism and public relations. As a non-native English speaker, many of her friends questioned her choice to study communications, where command of the English language is paramount. She admits to having to study three times as hard as many of her peers in part because she needs to translate much of her course material to understand it.

Additionally, Perez said there are very few students from abroad or of Hispanic descent majoring in communications. Rather than be deterred, this is largely what motivates her to press on.

“It is important to develop skills that allow people to communicate effectively across different cultures,” she said. “After graduating I can see myself working in the Hispanic community to help people find ways to better their own lives. I feel passionate about it.”

Perez is on-track to graduate with both degrees in 2021.