After she graduated from high school in the Washington coastal town of Raymond, Stephanie Chavez was thinking about attending a community college, but her school counselor suggested she apply to universities.
Chavez was accepted at the University of Washington Bothell and another one in the state.
“I honestly didn’t know where Bothell was,” she now concedes with a laugh. She found Bothell on an online map and figured, “OK, it’s far enough from home but close enough if I want to come back.”
Now, she’s grateful she found not just the right campus location but also the educational experiences and the faculty and staff support that has helped her affirm her identity, showed her how she could make a difference in her community and set her on a path to a career in law.
First-gen, fitting in
The first in her immediate family to graduate from a four-year college, Chavez was born in California but lived in Mexico until she was 10 when her family moved to Raymond. Her parents worked at an oyster cannery.
“I was in culture shock when I returned to the United States. My school was 70% Caucasian, and no one spoke Spanish. I had difficulty adjusting. To be accepted, I was forced to assimilate to the American culture and deny my Mexican roots and my language,” Chavez said.
“College was very eye-opening for me,” she added. “It empowered me and equipped me with the skills necessary to be whoever I wanted to be while embracing my culture and language.”
Chavez majored in Global Studies with a minor in Human Rights and graduated in 2014 from the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. One of her most memorable experiences was a month-long study abroad trip to Zambia. It was led by Senior Lecturer Leslie Ashbaugh, a beloved faculty member who died in 2016.
“That experience opened my eyes in ways I never imagined,” said Chavez, recalling her travels through impoverished areas. “These people had nothing to give you, yet they were willing to give you whatever they had. That was very powerful.”
In another course that featured community-based learning, Chavez worked at a food bank for Lifelong (formerly the Lifelong AIDS Alliance) in Seattle. “You were able to see right away the impact you can have by simply volunteering,” she said.
Because the UW Bothell community made her feel that she belonged, Chavez wanted to connect more high school Latinx students to the idea of going to college. To help organize outreach, she founded the Latino Student Union, which has evolved into the Latinx Student Union.
“It’s important to hear from people who look like you,” she said. “It goes back to trying to find a place you belong and feel comfortable.”
Meanwhile, Chavez also connected to campus herself through multiple jobs. She worked four years in the School of Business office and remains in touch with her supervisor Marci Myers. Chavez worked a year with the Office of Admissions on diversity initiatives. And she worked four years at a restaurant on Main Street in Bothell.
Since graduating six years ago, Chavez has worked as a paralegal or assistant for private law firms that practice immigration, personal injury and family law. She also has worked for nonprofits that help underrepresented communities. One job as a housing counselor for El Centro de la Raza in Seattle helped people move into Habitat for Humanity homes.
About two years ago, Chavez started working at Microsoft. She is an executive business administrator in the Corporate, External and Legal Affairs department. She became a lead member of the Pro Bono Steering Committee and helped organize Microsoft’s first volunteering trip to a Texas immigration detention center to help detained mothers and children.
Chavez also is director of legal clinics for the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington. She sets up monthly virtual clinics where volunteer lawyers offer free assistance in family law, immigration, employment and landlord-tenant issues.
“Each experience has helped me grow professionally and prepared me for my next opportunity,” she said.
Working toward a goal
This summer, Chavez started law school at Seattle University. While continuing to work full time at Microsoft, she expects to graduate in 2024.
She says that it's been an adjustment finding time for everything but that she’s getting back in the rhythm of hard work and school. “When you know you have to do something, you find a way,” she said.
Longer term, Chavez plans to work as an immigration attorney on decriminalization policy.
“I feel my UW Bothell experience empowered me to contribute to the community and make a difference in someone’s life,” said Chavez, who no longer is the only one in her family to graduate from the University.
Her sister Jennifer Chavez graduated from UW Bothell in June with a degree in Law, Economics & Public Policy. She is starting a job with the Los Angeles Police Department with the goal of working for the FBI.
The sisters already have a college recommendation in mind for a younger brother.