The academic pipeline serving low-income and first-generation students at Washington State University has many success stories.

WSU alumni of TRIO programs tell about their paths after Washington State.


Ariana Garcia (’16 Socio.) — McNair as a Gateway to Research (Council of Graduate Schools GradImpact spotlight, 2021)

Cristal Reyna Thompson (’13 Microbiol.) — Doctoral success for a McNair alumna at the University of Notre Dame and beyond

A talk with Ivan Valdovinos

Ivan Valdovinos (’15 English, Spanish) came from the small town of Soap Lake to Wenatchee Valley Community College and then Washington State University. He was first in his family to go to college and not even aware of the possibilities ahead.

His involvement in TRIO programs at WSU led him to graduation and beyond to graduate school at Harvard University. Valdovinos earned his master’s degree through Harvard’s Education and Policy Management Program in 2016 and is now pursuing his doctorate at the University of California at San Diego. He plans to finish in 2025.

Valdovinos also produced a series of YouTube videos about tips, tricks, and strategies for both applying to graduate school and daily life in grad school.

Valdovinos spoke with Washington State Magazine about his time at WSU, how it led to graduate school, his experiences, and his future plans.

How did your TRIO and McNair Achievement Program experience at WSU lead you to graduate school?

I am the first person in my family to go to college. My parents were scared for me to go three hours away to Pullman, where I knew no one, no one from my school, and I was going to go by myself. They said, we don’t want you to go all the way out there and we don’t have money to help you. We didn’t even know how financial aid works: Is that a scam? What is that like? Is it true that you’re going to get paid?

We had a lot of questions about the finances part of going to college, and obviously, moving three hours away was a lot for myself, as well as my parents. A recruiter for CAMP [College Assistance Migrant Program] actually came to my house at Soap Lake. They talked to my parents and through that my parents felt more comfortable. Then we went to La Bienvenida visitation program during orientation, and they felt more comfortable about me going. We also met other parents.

A previous WSU McNair student before me actually got into the same Harvard program. I was able to learn about Harvard’s Education Policy and Management program through her. At McNair, they have this unsaid rule that you have to apply to at least nine to twelve programs when you’re applying for graduate school. I took that advice and I did three reach schools. So, I chose three Ivy Leagues: Columbia, Harvard, and Penn. I got into Columbia and Harvard.

But the only reason I pushed to apply for these Ivy Leagues was really because of the mentorship that I received from both McNair and Student Support Services. Angie Klimko was the director when I was there and she was my advisor. I would meet with her pretty much every day. It seems like I was always in the office.

Angie kind of pushed me to apply to these schools like Harvard. I didn’t think I was smart enough. I didn’t think I was capable. My GPA wasn’t that high in terms of what I thought was a high GPA for that caliber school. But she pushed me to apply and I was like, ‘You know what, screw it, I’m going to apply.’ And I applied and then I ended up getting in.

What was Harvard like?

They condense a normal two-year master program to one year, so it’s definitely intense in terms of coursework.

I was focusing on Latino family engagement. My advisor was the leading scholar and researcher-practitioner for family engagement. She worked under the Obama administration to come up with this framework for our public schools. She helped me get deeper into that space and helped me blend the theories with practice.

You’re now at University of California San Diego working on your doctoral degree. How’s it going?

It’s going pretty well. I finished my first year.

My research interests are access and equity in higher education. I like to look at it in different spheres like family engagement. Especially for the Latino community, family engagement is a big part of persistence and graduation. I’m trying to figure out how we can implement family engagement practices into higher education. It was a transforming experience for my family when I was at WSU and not every school has that.

I also focus on Latino males in higher education, in terms of access and persistence and graduation. I look at rural community colleges, and their role in student experience, because I come from a rural background. That looks different from someone who’s from an urban place, Seattle, for example. And because I am first-generation, low-income Latino, there are so many challenges and unknowns.

I went to Soap Lake High School. Our town only has 1,500 people, and my graduating class was one of the biggest with 39 students. Only two of us went to college. So that’s what I wrote in my Harvard statement of purpose when I applied. Imagine if only a few people from rural communities were going to college. That’s why I’m researching about access and policy.

What are your future plans?

Right now, I’m debating on what I want to do as a career. So, I’m thinking about either being a professor or possibly working in administration, like being a vice president of student affairs at a community college.

I have experience with it because I used to direct a TRIO program at Wenatchee Valley College before I started the PhD. I was a director of the Support Services program.

What advice do you have for people who might want to go graduate school?

Connections are huge. Getting involved is huge. I feel like everybody says that, but I’ll just say it again. It’ll help you become a more competitive applicant for graduate school, so you definitely want to get involved.

The biggest thing for WSU students, in particular, is to definitely use those research opportunities or those resources for research. You never know what type of research they might have for you, that fits what you want to do, your personal and professional needs.

Talk to not only students, but also staff and faculty. It really did help me get to that next step. A lot of my professors were really helpful when I was having a challenge with their course.

I also feel like, because WSU is in a college town, you really have that immediate connection in the isolation, like being in this club.

Check out Valdovinos’s graduate school strategies channel on YouTube.