Christopher Leyva Vera admits he procrastinated while attending Coupeville High School and that he didn’t feel ready for higher education when he graduated in 2012.
The 24-year-old is now a first-generation college student at Skagit Valley College Whidbey Island Campus who was recently named to the All-Washington Academic Team.
“I don’t want to go into filling out any applications thinking ‘I’m definitely getting this,’ because that’s just setting myself up for disappointment every time,” Leyva Vera said with a laugh.
He certainly wasn’t disappointed this time. The All-Washington Academic Team recognizes outstanding community college and technical students in the state.
The online description of the event said the selected students “reflect the diversity of the state, maintain high standards of excellence, and contribute positively to the community.”
Leyva Vera received more than $2,000 in scholarships from the event, and his application ranked him in the top five among Washington’s team.
His seemingly impossible schedule seems to check all the award’s requirement boxes. During his time at the college, he has served as program board coordinator, Phi Theta Kappa honor society vice president and secretary, Rainbow Alliance secretary, student body president, and in leadership positions in a variety of student committees.
He participated in the Latino Leadership Initiative, a program in which he mentored Latino high school students and encouraged the pursuit of higher education, and he wants to transfer to the University of Washington to study social work.
He said the schedule can be a lot to handle sometimes, but he’s found that he’s willing to make the time for things he cares about.
“When I started out school, it could be kind of overwhelming just taking two classes and then as time went on, working and doing all this kind of stuff too, I found out I could do a lot more than I thought I could before,” he said. “It’s opened my eyes to just how productive I can be if I really apply myself.”
Initially unsure of what field of study to pursue, Leyva Vera’s experience working with the Latino Leadership Initiative inspired him to look into social work. He worked with English language learner students, and was able to relate to many of them about growing up in bilingual homes. He also knew the difficulty of navigating higher education systems as a first-generation college student.
“That experience was pretty eye-opening to me,” he said of the program. “It pushed me towards this career— just being able to help people. And I feel like social work and social welfare is a pretty good career to take on if I want to help people.”
He hasn’t always been so motivated. Leyva Vera said in high school he didn’t have much focus on his classes and lost interest in extra curricular activities, quitting the track team his sophomore year.
“I guess I got senioritis before everyone else did,” he laughed.
He said he probably wouldn’t have considered pursuing higher education without two teachers who had a significant impact on him: Barbara Ballard and Tacy Bigelow. His senior year he took Ballard’s UW English course at the high school. He said the class was challenging, but he found it interesting and managed to earn an A. His success at a college-level class gave him confidence that he could do well outside of high school.
Leyva Vera said he found less success in Bigelow’s art class, but her advice helped give him some direction for life after high school.
“I was terrible at art, but I’d go in during lunch and just have conversations with her and talk about life, and that also helped,” he said.
He didn’t enter college immediately after graduation. Leyva Vera said the few years spent working part-time jobs doing gardening and at a coffee shop helped him gain some focus before starting school again. He said he eventually realized none of those jobs provided a forward-moving career path for him. Leyva Vera will graduate next quarter with his associate degree and a 4.0 GPA.
“If I didn’t get my life together and start being motivated, no one was going to come and save me except myself,” he said. “… I wanted to do something with my life, so I finally just got serious about it all and started applying myself.”