By: Tamara Braunstein
If you’d asked Araceli in high school about what she wanted to do with her life, she might have shrugged. She definitely wouldn’t have named any job requiring a four-year degree — she never thought she’d make it to college. For a while, she wasn’t sure she’d graduate from high school.
Today, she’s a proud graduate of the University of Washington (UW) Tacoma School of Social Work. And she’s an even prouder mother to her five-year-old son, Christian.
It’s Christian whom she credits with igniting her desire to push herself and achieve academic success. And it’s her 10th grade mentor who inspired her path forward.
“I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to graduate high school without that person to listen to me, help me with my academics, especially math and writing,” she says. “It was just a struggle.”
So from her perspective, Araceli’s degree is not only for herself and her son — it’s also for students who don’t speak English as their first language. For kids whose parents work long, hard days that leave them less available to support their children academically. For anyone who might be struggling with a learning disability and just need a little extra encouragement to thrive. For people like her.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do in social work at the beginning; I just knew I wanted to help people,” Araceli says.
But if high school was a challenge, even the logistics of going to college presented an entirely new test. Balancing class schedules with childcare while working to pay for both was daunting. At least she was eligible for public funding.
Until she wasn’t.
After completing prerequisite courses at South Seattle College in 2017, Araceli transferred to UW’s social work program. But soon after starting classes there, she was notified that her financial aid from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) would not be renewed. DSHS had changed their terms and she was no longer eligible based on her academic program.
Even though she was living at home with her parents, she couldn’t rely on them to watch Christian. Her father worked all day and her mother was recovering from a kidney transplant while undergoing cancer treatment.
“I went looking for help and someone at the university told me about their emergency aid options, but it turned out I didn’t qualify,” she says. “Then they mentioned the Seattle Milk Fund.”
A self-described skeptic, Araceli was hesitant about what the Seattle Milk Fund was offering. She had never heard of the organization. She was sure there’d be some sort of small print that would disqualify her. It seemed too good to be true.
But Araceli was also a bit of an optimist — or as she says, maybe just desperate enough to take a chance.
“They just said, ‘If you’re a mom, if you’re in school…’ and I remember thinking, ‘OK, I’m fit for this,’” she says. “So I hurried to get my application together and I hoped for the best.”
Getting the call that she’d been accepted as a Seattle Milk Fund recipient was life-changing. Not only did it mean Araceli could continue her studies and work, it meant she could keep sending her son to the daycare she already knew and trusted.
“In the beginning, everything was hard emotionally,” Araceli says, recalling the impact of her mother’s chemo treatment and care needs. “Being in school and having to do everything I was doing, knowing Seattle Milk Fund was there to help relieved so much stress.”
Stressful is an understatement of Araceli’s first year at UW. Many days involved waking up early to drop off Christian at daycare, then driving 45 minutes to school to attend class for one hour, then driving another 25 minutes to an internship before finally completing the trek back to her neck of the woods to work. Once at home, her hours were spent studying, completing tasks for her internship, and caring for her son and her mother.
But through all of that, Araceli learned two lessons: 1) The importance of setting boundaries for her time and 2) The importance of self-care, including asking for assistance when she needed it.
“The shy part in me still comes up. I was always terrified to ask for help because I don’t like to make people mad,” Araceli says. “But when you open up about reality, people can be understanding.”
She learned that at home especially, where each lesson was pressure tested.
Trying to balance everything on her plate was almost impossible. So she finally asked her sister, her only sibling, to tag-team caring for their mother. And she learned to tune out any criticisms that she should be prioritizing work and Christian.
“My dad is the macho man, always working. So sometimes I feel like I have to defend myself,” Araceli says. “I’m not a bad mom. I’m doing this for my son.”
The Seattle Milk Fund also became part of her self-care plan.
“I think they understand the life of a college student. We’re single moms, we’re busy,” she says. “This organization is like another hand.”
Not only that, but it’s a community Araceli didn’t realize she needed until she had it. It’s camaraderie, emotional support and professional networking rolled into one — all with people who empathize with her story. Plus, thanks to their tickets to venues like zoos, aquariums and museums, Araceli and Christian get to make the most of their limited free time together in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
“It’s so expensive to do those things, and a lot of us don’t have the money,” Araceli says. “Those have been my getaways with my son.”
Now, as Christian prepares to enter Kindergarten, Araceli is looking to the next chapter of their life: A pay increase (as soon as she earned her degree, her employer of eight years bumped up her pay) and graduate school. The toughest decision she’s facing now is whether to pursue a specialty in education or medicine.
After completing her internship at a local high school, she’s convinced she has what it takes to work with students to turn their academic careers around.
“I’m glad I was put at a high school, because I felt like that was the hardest part of my education,” she says. “I feel like I have a story they can relate to — I helped students who spoke Spanish, I helped the ones at risk of dropping out, I helped the seniors apply for college.”
But going through her mother’s medical crisis exposed Araceli to the world of medical social work. She was so inspired by and thankful for how her mother’s case workers supported the family, especially when it felt like the doctors were only focused on the medical treatment and not a holistic experience.
“I feel like I could close the gaps between the doctor and the patient,” she says. “People need more attention paid to the emotional part of care.”
Whatever she decides, Araceli knows her success will come down to having a plan, then remembering her two lessons along the way.
As she tells her high school students, “It’s hard and you have to sacrifice, but if you make goals — and ask for help — you can meet them.”