How 3000 student leaders are working to make Washington colleges more accessible

Student leaders holding a banner of Communities for Our Colleges

Fernando Mejia Ledesma made two wishes as he was struggling through the Arizona desert more than 20 years ago: survive the border crossing into the United States, and have the chance to attend college.

“I came to the U.S. at the age of 16 years old in search of a better life. Growing up in Mexico, life was difficult. By the time I was 16 years old I had to make a choice: Stay and face the growing violence in my community or cross the U.S-Mexico border through the Arizona desert. I chose the latter. It took me two days and two nights to cross the border.”

During that difficult journey, he looked up and saw a falling star.

“I made a wish: ‘I will not die dehydrated. I will not die at the hands of the border patrol. I will not die.’”

Then, a second falling star appeared in the sky.

“I had to make another wish: ‘If I make it, I will change my life and go to college.’”

Fernando’s first wish came true, and he made his way to Idaho where he became a farmworker, enrolled at Vallivue High School, and began learning English. By the time he was graduating from high school in 2004, however, he worried about whether he could make his second wish a reality.

“I faced another challenge: How can an undocumented youth attend college in Idaho?”

Fernando had heard about the DREAM Act, which gave him some hope, and in April of 2004 a community organizer asked him to share his story at a press conference to talk about the impact the DREAM Act could make on his life.

“I became the first publicly known undocumented youth in the state of Idaho, and for the next five years I joined other youth from across the country, introduced and defended in-state tuition legislation, and helped build the immigrant rights movement for the next 10 years.”

Two years after arriving in Idaho – thanks to an initial loan from his high school teacher and private scholarships – Fernando managed to complete his second wish. He graduated from Boise State University in 2009. This experience fueled Fernando’s passion for education justice and the work he does leading Communities for Our Colleges today.

Communities for Our Colleges (C4C) – run by the Alliance for a Just Society, one of our Washington State Initiative grantees – is a multiracial, student-centered campaign in Washington state that works to improve the state’s community colleges. C4C’s coalition of labor, faith, civil rights, and student organizations, along with local businesses, engages students, faculty, staff, and the community to advocate for improved funding, access, and racial equity.

One of Washington State team’s goals is to increase postsecondary pathways – especially for students who face the largest systemic barriers, which include Latino students.

“Funding community leaders with lived experiences within the Latino community is an investment in authentic representation and systemic transformation. By empowering those who intimately understand the challenges and nuances, we bridge the gap between policy and reality,” said Dr. Bish Paul, the senior program officer at the Gates Foundation who manages this grant to C4C. “These leaders bring invaluable insights, cultural competence, and a genuine connection to the community they serve. Supporting them is not just an act of financial assistance; it’s a commitment to equitable change.”

Here are three ways C4C is working to ensure every student can access and complete college.

1. Making Colleges More Accessible events

C4C recently held the Making Colleges More Accessible event at Yakima Valley College, which had the goal of building relationships between students, their families, faculty and staff. During this event, they provided college affordability information, but more importantly, students and community members got an opportunity to share their stories and why they care about their community college.

So many of these stories mirror Fernando’s journey to Idaho two decades ago.

Katia Prado, for example, came to the U.S. six years ago to have a better future and provide a better life for her mother. “Now, I dedicate myself to working and studying English at Yakima Valley College, but my greatest wish is to one day study science, in aeronautical technology. It is one of my biggest dreams.”

Mauricio González came to Washington state from Jalisco, Mexico. He is currently in his last year of high school and would like to study mechatronic engineering. “The barriers that I face at this moment are the lack of knowledge of English and the necessary money to be in school.”

Portrait of Fabiola Pérez

Fabiola Pérez is finishing her associate degree at Yakima Valley College and shares how much she struggled to get consistent and clear information from counselors in high school. “One of the barriers I’ve faced is that the counselors don’t give the same information and help to all the high school students. They didn’t help me when I had questions.”

This event – organized by a group of students from diverse backgrounds – allowed C4C to establish and deepen relationships with small businesses, nonprofit organizations, Latino churches, and other organizations that are interested in higher education. It even motivated around 40 people to sign up to advocate for community college students in the future.

“These students work in the agricultural fields, in warehouses, truck drivers, cosmeticians – many of them see community college as their path to build their careers and give back to their communities,” Fernando shared.

2. Advocating for financial aid support

This year, C4C helped 3,000 students submit a letter to the state legislature detailing the challenges around the cost of college. This includes the need for more aid to help with the cost of books, child care, and wraparound services. Students also expressed a desire to have better on-campus hubs where they could access this kind of support. In response, the state is currently working to make the first year of college free for all low-income students who attend community and technical colleges in Washington.

3. Nurturing student leaders

C4C organizes student education and leadership development opportunities, including on-campus training and a paid C4C Fellowship program. To date, the Fellowship program has organized 20 student fellows on 14 different community college campuses. These fellows have engaged more than 5,700 other students and parents through their outreach.

Portrait of Rae Watkins

Rae Watkins was so inspired by her C4C fellowship that she’s now the student body president at South Puget Sound Community College.

“I was able to meet with both school and government officials on behalf of local students, which in turn, ignited a passion for encouraging student advocacy among a larger population of students themselves. Communities for Our Colleges provides students like myself with amazing professional opportunities to work in advocacy and policy-making processes both on and off campus.”

Two years ago, Fernando became a U.S. citizen and voted for the first time. In that moment, Fernando thought back to the community organizer that made his dreams a reality nearly 20 years ago.

“There was a community organization that created the space for me to step into my leadership, taught me how to bring people together impacted by inequities, and identify solutions. If it wasn’t for that local organization, I don’t know where I would be.”

That’s the philosophy that Fernando says “is part of the essence of Communities for Our Colleges today.”

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