Photo by WSU Photo Services
As a child, Diego Bante Rivera, a first-generation student from Walla Walla, Washington, watched his family struggle to make ends meet. As he got older, college was clearly out of his reach financially, but he admired the ambition of his sister, who dreamed of becoming an accountant and was paying her own way at Walla Walla Community College.
After high school, Bante Rivera worked in the agricultural and landscaping industries and didn’t think about furthering his education. But a spinal cord injury changed all of that.
In 2016, he was paralyzed from the chest down and spent the next year recovering and adapting to life in a wheelchair.
“After my injury, I had to rethink my life and the need for higher education,” he says. “I watched my sister chase her dream of becoming an accountant but ultimately give it up, because as an undocumented student, she couldn’t afford to go beyond her associate’s degree. It motivated me to start my degree.”
Unlike his older sister, Bante Rivera was able to receive financial aid when Washington state allocated it to undocumented students. He enrolled in online classes at Walla Walla Community College. Unsure about what direction to take, he followed in her footsteps and tried an accounting class. He enjoyed it and earned a good grade, which proved to be a lightbulb moment.
Scholarships and other resources ease the burden
“I started researching accounting careers and learned you can do a lot of things. Accounting is really the language of business,” Bante Rivera says. “And when you graduate, employment opportunities are everywhere.”
After completing his AA degree, Bante Rivera transferred to WSU to double major in accounting and finance. Initially, he took classes online through Global Campus. But he craved face-to-face opportunities to make friends and engage in activities that would build his professional skills.
Scholarships and financial aid made it possible for him to move with his wife and children to the Palouse and begin classes at WSU Pullman. He was accepted into EDGE, a Carson College scholarship program that supports first-generation students. He received scholarships from the industry and the Department of Accounting and became a Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living Corporate Scholar and a Carson Ambassador. Combined, these resources help support his education.
But financial aid does not solve all the logistical problems a person with a disability faces when trying to navigate campus.
“The first time I came to the Pullman campus, I second-guessed myself,” he says. “Looking at all the hills, I thought ‘How can I be successful if I can’t get around?’”
Support from Miguel Inzunza, then a recruiter in the Carson Center for Student Success, made him realize it would be possible. “He gave me a tour, pushed me up hills, and mapped out a path for me to get to class,” Bante Rivera says.
An accessible parking permit, which he pays for with scholarship funds, allows Bante Rivera to park by building entrances, and he’s allowed additional time to get to class. The WSU Access Center provides accessible testing space and puts tables in classrooms on his behalf. “Wherever I turn, there’s someone to help, and that really takes the weight off my shoulders,” Bante Rivera says.
Putting in the work to create positive change
At WSU, Bante Rivera immersed himself in career preparation activities because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get an internship as an undocumented student. “I looked for anything that would give me professional experience such as teamwork and public speaking,” he says.
“The first time I met Diego, I knew he was someone special. I could see how impactful he was going to be in our college and beyond,” says Michelle Chapman, Carson assistant director for student engagement and career development. “As a Carson Ambassador, he’s developed into a confident professional whose talents will have a lasting effect long after he graduates. He is the epitome of a Carson Coug!”
Last summer, Bante Rivera received a work permit and accepted a tax internship with Hayden Ross, PLLC, in Moscow. He’s gaining valuable experience toward his goal of becoming a CPA and working in the tax sector after he graduates in December.
It takes getting up at 4:45 a.m. and a lot of coffee, but he’s able to handle it all.
“My education and internship have really taught me how to become a professional,” he says. “You just have to put in the hard work because that’s how it will be in industry. I intend to be the positive change for my family.”