Monday, December 22, 2014

Ex-farmworker: WSU ring says it all

sylvia guzman Global CampusSylvia Guzman holds out her hand. Her class ring is silver with a red garnet, and engraved with the words Washington State University, her year of graduation, and the Cougar logo. It’s a substantial piece of jewelry—as much monument as ornament—and looks bulky on her slender finger.

“I wear it every day,” she says. “It reminds me of what helped me become who I am now. I can’t carry my diploma around with me, but I can wear my ring and say, ‘see that, that’s my BA.’”

Sylvia now teaches two classrooms of mainstream and disabled preschoolers for Skagit Island Early Head Start. She uses Spanish, English and sign language. She makes daily visits to low-income parents to connect them with such agencies as GED programs and food banks—and she brings a personal familiarity with their struggles:

At 13, Sylvia started working in the fields of Central California to help her parents, immigrants from Oaxaca. At 18, Sylvia married Cornelio, a fellow Oaxacan. They traveled up and down the Northwest, picking oranges, grapes, lemons, olives, blueberries, cucumbers, apples, and strawberries. They lived in labor camps, their van, and livestock barns—and awoke to rats in their bed.

More... At 21, Sylvia was fed up with fieldwork. It was 2001. She was sharing a two-bedroom house with Cornelio, their two young children and about 20 other people in Burlington, Wash. She walked across the street to a child-care center.

“I told the woman that I’d come here every day for a week and work for free,” she says. She got a job, then earned her associate’s degree from Skagit Valley College and enrolled in WSU’s online program.

“The WSU instructors really work with you,” Sylvia says, “They understand that we’re working people, and they’re flexible when we have issues with our jobs or children.”

In 2010, she earned her bachelor’s in human development with a minor in early childhood education. She was featured at the WSU commencement ceremony, in Washington State Magazine, and on the front page of the local paper.

Next on her list are getting a promotion and a master’s in counseling. While her WSU degree has put those goals within reach, she says, it’s also helping her now, both with practical skills—“everything I learned at WSU I’ve been able to use in my current position”—and increased confidence.

“My BA is an affirmation that I know what I’m talking about, that I know what I’m doing,” she says. “This ring tells me that, every day.”


  1. What a wonderful testimony, Sylvia! Keep going, and with that driving force, you will impact so many others. All the best to you!

  2. Wow! Awesome personal story. Her determination to create a better life for herself and her children definitely touches my heart. As a teenager in the late '70's and early '80's I worked the apple orchards of the Wenatchee Valley alongside migrant workers from Mexico. It was very hard work for little money. It motivated me to want to get an education. I attend WSU and graduated in 1983. It was by far the best and most impactful decision of my life.