SEATTLE—Cesar Ivan Fernandez always thought that if he could get back to school, his life would be better.
After dropping out of college, working in several jobs, moving frequently, getting married and trying for years to clarify his immigration status, Fernandez returned to school in 2015 at Seattle Central College.
He is now on track to graduate in 2018 with an associate degree in chemistry. And he hopes that’s just the start in the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree and perhaps a Ph.D.
“All along, I kept in mind: ‘You need to get back to school, you need to get back to school,’” said the 34-year-old Fernandez, known to friends as Ivan. “Of course, I want to get my degree and make money, but I just love the process of education.”
“Ivan has been in a different place since returning to school,” said Brad. “The passion seems to grow in him. The more he is challenged, the more he gets into it.”
It’s been a long journey for Ivan.
He grew up in southern Mexico, part of a large, low-income family in Sayula, Jalisco. His mother had five children, and his father had another child. Although very close to his grandmother, Ivan said the rest of his family could never accept the fact that he was homosexual.
“They sent me here because I was gay,” Ivan said. That was in 1998, when Ivan was 15. He ended up in Santa Cruz, Calif., where his mother had moved after leaving Mexico. He knew only rudimentary English and took an English-as-a-second-language course his sophomore year in high school. He quickly realized that mastering the new language was essential to his success, so he worked hard and, in just a year, advanced to regular English courses. By his senior year, he qualified for Advanced Placement courses in English.
“Instead of dealing with all the pain and loneliness (of his new life), I put that energy into learning,” Ivan said. “I was good in the sciences and in every other class.” He finished in the top 15 of his graduating class of 250 and was accepted at the University of California-Los Angeles for the fall term of 2001.
His college experience did not go well. Although UCLA offered a scholarship, Ivan couldn’t obtain federal financial assistance because he was not a citizen. So, feeling financial stress and receiving no assistance from his family, Ivan dropped out of college.
“It just became impossible” to continue at UCLA, he said. “That was probably one of the most discouraging things I’ve had to do.”
For the next four years, Ivan had several relationships and worked odd jobs. “I just liked to party, go out, have a good time,” he recalled.
He later found a job he liked in Scotts Valley, Calif. He worked five years as a technician in a microbiology laboratory, testing vitamin products for tainted materials. He left when the company was going through a restructuring in 2010.
He met Brad in California, and they moved frequently for Brad’s work as a surgical technician. They were married in 2013 and, a year later, decided to settle in Seattle, where Brad now works at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Once in Seattle, Ivan began to explore options for continuing his education. He learned about Seattle Central College through online searches, and then met a neighbor in his apartment complex who had completed a program at the college and recommended it.
Ivan started classes at Seattle Central in 2015, and he knew immediately he was in the right place. Seattle Central was close to his new home, and Ivan says that helped him settle in.
“I needed some roots. I needed a connection. I wanted to be part of the community,” said Ivan, who lives just a short walk from the campus. “I can sit there and study all day. It was very exciting. I felt like a little kid there on the first day.”
However, after a good start at Seattle Central, Ivan “basically lost two terms” in his struggle to have his immigration status made permanent. He is currently covered under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program begun during the administration of President Barack Obama.
Because he is now married to a U.S. citizen, Ivan thought the status process would be straightforward. It hasn’t been. He had to leave the country, return to Mexico, and then re-enter the United States so Brad could “claim” him, according to Ivan. That travel, plus the legal fees they were forced to incur, have left the couple deeply in debt.
“All five of our credit cards are maxed out because of immigration,” said Ivan. Brad “has my word I will repay him for this.”
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park,” Brad said about the immigration process. “And this is when he is married to an American. It should be a straightforward process at this point, and it isn’t.”
Ivan resumed his studies after completing the required trip to and from Mexico. And he’s thriving: taking a full schedule of courses, working in a laboratory, and tutoring other students in calculus, chemistry and Spanish.
“He’s always the first to show up and the last to leave,” said Dana Maestas, the laboratory manager at Seattle Central. “He likes helping other students, making sure everyone knows what they are learning and enjoys learning. “He’s in here every day, whether I schedule him or not,” said Maestas. “He does what needs to be done and extra things, too.”
Ivan hopes to move on to the nearby University of Washington after he graduates from Seattle Central.
He wants a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology, and then perhaps a doctorate. Beyond that, he hopes to make enough money eventually to pay Brad back for his support over the years.
Brad is confident Ivan “is going to go far.”
Ivan’s education “is extremely important,” Brad says, “because it can be someone like Ivan who cures cancer someday or cures HIV. Or it could be the person who figures out how to power the world without fossil fuels.
“It takes just one person, and it could be this person I’m married to,” Brad said. “It could be this kind of person who could change the world.”