Making a mother proud

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoElizabeth Roe, 27, of Chehalis, right, reflects well on a fellow graduate -- who happens to be her mother, Jan Roe, 52 -- before the Washington State University Vancouver commencement ceremony at the Sleep Country Amphitheater on Saturday. The younger Roe is is receiving a B.A. in social science and her mother is receiving a B.A. in social science and a B.S. in psychology.

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photoWSUV graduate Monica Santos-Pinacho gets a hug from her mother, Aquilina Pinacho, outside the Sleep Country Amphitheater. before the commencement ceremony for Washington State University Vancouver on Saturday. Aquilina brought her daughter to the U.S. from Mexico when Santos-Pinacho was 9 years old and insisted she get an education; now Santos-Pinacho wants to follow in her mother's footsteps by working to open up access to higher education for more minority students.

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Go Cougs!

There's "deeper meaning" in the favorite phrase of Washington State University than most Cougars realize, said Tony Rojas, president of Slalom Consulting and a Washington State University graduate, in his graduation keynote address. Rojas explored that meaning in his advice to the Class of 2013:n Invest in yourself. You've made a huge investment in your education. Now manage that investment wisely.

• Be prepared. "Cougs are not wallflowers," he said. Be ready to seize the moment.

• Remember family and friends. Love your work but don't let it consume you.

• Practice humility and thankfulness. Don't forget to thank the teachers, and others, who helped you on your way.

Rojas led the crowd in some spirited chants of "Go Cougs!" and concluded: "With those two words, we send you off to make your mark in this world."

Is there any better Mother's Day gift than a cap and gown?

"I want to make sure she sees me walk," said Monica Santos-Pinacho in the run-up to Washington State University Vancouver's graduation ceremony on Saturday.

Mom saw. Aquilina Pinacho, who got little formal education when a girl in Mexico but led the way for seven children to achieve and succeed in the U.S.A., may have been the happiest person in the gleeful crowd of 6,000 who came to watch more than 900 WSUV graduates stride across the stage of the Sleep Country Amphitheater, and off into the future.

Not only did Aquilina get to watch her daughter -- the first person in the family to earn a bachelor's degree -- accept her diploma, she also saw Chancellor Mel Netzhammer recognize Monica Santos-Pinacho with the school's top student honor, the 2013 Chancellor's Award for

Student Excellence. The day before, Aquilina saw her daughter accept a medal from the College of Business Administration for graduating magna cum laude.

Santos-Pinacho, 25, "is someone whose personal drive shines," said Netzhammer. Recognized as a leader at WSUV, Santos-Pinacho is ambitious to head for Washington, D.C., and lead the way to higher education for more minority students. But first, she's got an internship lined up at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, a Seattle marketing firm that works for Microsoft.

All of which, Santos-Pinacho said, is thanks to the inspirational mom who quit school as a girl, sacrificing much for her family and children. Aquilina Pinacho was the oldest daughter in a large Mexican family, and when her labor was needed to underwrite her male siblings' education, that's what happened. There weren't any other options for Aquilina, who watched her brothers follow their ambitions while she kept working.

"Getting an education was a privilege, and she didn't get it," Santos-Pinacho said.

Finally, the divorced mother of four children left the kids with her own mother and emigrated to the United States. She became a citizen, did menial work for years, remarried and had three more children. Eventually she sent for the four who were still living in Mexico with their grandmother -- yet another strong leader, Santos-Pinacho said.

"She was a devout Catholic and always doing community service," said Santos-Pinacho. "That's why my sisters and I do so much community service. She taught us the power of serving others."

It took time, but Aquilina's petition to bring her children to the U.S. was successful in the end. The children moved from Mexico to their strange new home in "La Center," a town with an oddly bilingual-sounding name -- and met their new young siblings, which was definitely "weird" for 9-year-old Santos-Pinacho. But the adjustment got made, she said, and she learned to love her younger sibs just as much as the ones she'd grown up with.

Other things were weird about the U.S., she said: "I had to learn English, and I had to learn to like burgers." Yellow American cheese also took some getting used to, she said. Chinese food, on the other hand, was an instant hit.

Weirdest of all, Santos-Pinacho said, was the American higher education system and its maze of financial aid requirements and forms. It's enough to throw anybody off, she said, let alone people who grew up with a different language, in a different culture -- but for the children of Aquilina Pinacho, not going to college was not an option.

"Her only expectation for us was that we would graduate from high school and go to college," Santos-Pinacho said. "She always raised us with a sense that education was our one and only responsibility." Aquilina kept busy doing backbreaking work while forbidding her children to get after-school jobs, or even date, until they'd graduated from high school. In summertime, when the children did join their mom picking berries in the fields, she would tell them: "If you don't want to go to school, this is how you will end up someday."

Santos-Pinacho attended Clark College, where she not only excelled in her studies, but also scored a job on campus as well as a marketing job at the Clark County Events Center. After she earned her associate degree at Clark, she said, she thought about delaying the rest of her education -- largely because of that financial-aid maze.

Instead of pausing, though, she marched into WSUV offices to get the facts. Once again, her smarts and perseverance were impressive enough to win her not just admission to school, but multiple campus job offers, too. She has worked 20-plus hours per week as an intern in the Office of Student Involvement, a Cougar Center staff member and as leader of many campus events -- all while earning a 3.8 cumulative GPA, with a major in business administration and three minors: political science, Spanish and Latin American cultural studies.

Mainly, Santos-Pinacho emphasizes, she led something called College Goal Sunday, an annual event that helps high school students and their parents get through that same maze of financial aid paperwork that she'd had to conquer. College Goal Sunday is a huge boon for first-generation college students like herself, she said -- and her challenge was to put it on with no budget whatsoever.

Not only did she get it done, but Netzhammer pointed out that WSUV's College Goal Sunday was the only event of its kind in Washington that's offered in four languages. Santos-Pinacho has also been a leader in the HB 1079 Coalition, a statewide coalition to support undocumented students.

"Social justice is a huge passion of mine," she said. Her ultimate goal is a position of influence in Washington, D.C., where she can keep opening up access to higher education for minority communities. "I want to establish policies to help first-generation students get into college," she said.

But first -- even before that impressive internship in Seattle -- it's a three-week backpacking trip in Europe with college friends.

And it's all thanks, she said, to the inspirational Aquilina Pinacho -- who is currently enrolled in English classes at Clark.

"She told me, 'I have done everything I've done to make sure doors are open for you,'" said Santos-Pinacho. "That's what I want to keep doing for others. That's why I admire her. That's why I'm lucky to be her daughter."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.