Larry LaRue

Undocumented student from Tacoma will meet first lady Michelle Obama

Mentor Melody Rodriguez, left, with Amairany Bautista at her graduation from Lincoln High school last month. Bautista has enrolled at the University of Puget Sound.
Mentor Melody Rodriguez, left, with Amairany Bautista at her graduation from Lincoln High school last month. Bautista has enrolled at the University of Puget Sound. Courtesy photo

Amairany Bautista remembers being asked in fifth grade about her goal in life.

“I had a plan,” she said. “I wanted to go to college and become a lawyer.”

It was an admirable goal that was torpedoed during her freshman year at Lincoln High School, when she learned she was an undocumented student. Suddenly, college seemed impossible.

“I realized I wouldn’t be eligible for financial aid became of my status, and I was devastated,” said Bautista, who is now 19.

She had lived in Tacoma since entering the country from Mexico at the age of 9 months. Her three siblings — one older brother, two younger — were all born in the U.S.

Bautista was born during a visit to Mexico by her mother.

As her junior year began, Bautista approached the College Success Foundation and asked for help. She got it, in the form of mentor Melody Rodriguez, a 45-year-old who grew up in Lakewood but could relate to Bautista’s situation.

“My father was Puerto Rican, my mother was from the Phillipines,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez had previously mentored one of Bautista’s aunts, Rosario, who is eight years older than Bautista.

“Rosario graduated from Lincoln in 2006, then from Central Washington University in 2010,” Rodriguez said. “I was her mentor in high school.”

That’s when Rodriguez met Bautista.

“She was just a little kid,” Rodriguez recalled.

What Bautista found was more than a mentor. Rodriguez became a friend, an older sister, and a woman who was always there for her.

“When she found out her status and realized she wasn’t eligible for certain programs because of that, she lost faith,” Rodriguez said of Bautista. “A lot of kids in that situation give up, drop out.”

Bautista wouldn’t.

And the president of the United States helped her.

“On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced a way to apply for a two-year work permit that gave me some protection from being deported,” Bautista said.

That was the date Obama announced the U.S. would stop deporting young undocumented individuals who match certain criteria previously included in the federal Dream Act.

The Washington state Legislature followed two years later by passing the Real Hope Act, which makes it possible for children who lack legal immigration status to qualify for state need grants.

Bautista received temporary protected status under Obama’s directive, which allowed her to get a job.

“She went to work at McDonald’s,” Rodriguez said. “But it also made her eligible for programs that could help her get into college.”

Bautista had a 3.9 grade point average late in high school, graduated with a 3.7.

By her junior year, she was filling out college applications and studying scholarship opportunities.

“When we started looking at colleges and scholarships and grants, it was all new to me,” Bautista said. “(Rodriguez) knew about it, understood it and explained it. She’d motivate me.”

Early in 2015, college acceptances began arriving. Bautista was invited to attend the University of Washington Tacoma, Central Washington University and Eastern Washington University.

On March 1, she got the best opportunity of her life from the University of Puget Sound, starting with a $43,000 scholarship for her freshman year.

“She didn’t think UPS was accessible, but it became viable when they accepted her and awarded her a scholarship,” Rodriguez said. “Their Tacoma Public Schools Commitment offered her a free education as long as she lives on campus and maintains high academic standards.”

Without hesitation, Bautista accepted.

“I’m going to get my bachelor’s degree, then my masters, and I’m going to start as a political science major,” she said.

There are mentoring programs at UPS, and Bautista will have the help of friends and other students. Rodriguez, who lives near UPS, will also be there for her.

“I’ll call and visit a lot,” Bautista said. “She’s family.”

Earlier this summer, Rodriguez nominated Bautista to attend a Reach Higher event at the White House on July 23.

Bautista is one of 150 students invited to join first lady Michelle Obama, and Rodriguez will be her chaperone. The two will leave for Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

All attending students were invited to submit a question for the first lady. Bautista didn’t want hers to be too simple.

She will ask: “Did you find any racial or gender discrimination when you attended college, and how did you deal with it?”

For now, Bautista’s path to a college education seems firm. Last week, however, she and Rodriguez had to visit UPS to correct a problem. When the Central Tacoma school assigned dorm roommates, they mistakenly paired Bautista with a male student.

“My parents were not going to accept that,” she said.

UPS has taken care of the matter.