Perla Bolaños was a lonely third-grade student separated from her mostly white peers in a Salinas, Calif., classroom when she made a new “best friend” who would change her life: the English dictionary.

They met when her teacher, unable to breach the language barrier between them, sat Bolaños at a desk by herself. Instead of receiving language services or grade-level instruction, Bolaños said she was told to organize the books in the back of class.

“It was just like a real eye opener that it was not going to be the same,” she said.

Back in her home country of Mexico, Bolaños loved school. She was a star student who received frequent praise from her teachers. When her family moved, her parents enrolled her in a majority white school.

Suddenly, Bolaños felt like an outsider. Other students bullied her for her second-hand clothes and Spanish. Her teacher did not take the time to work with the bright young girl. She knew something had to change.

“And if I needed to … get past it, I needed to do something different,” she said.

So Bolaños went about translating every book she could, starting with the English dictionary. Slowly but surely she taught herself a new language.

This spirit of being willing to make a change brought Bolaños to Heritage University on a full ride scholarship. On Saturday it will be with her at graduation. And she is determined to use it to make a difference for generations of Heritage students in her new position on its advancement team.

Facing challenges

Bolaños’ family returned to Mexico for about a year before they came to Toppenish when she was in fifth grade. She had little time to adjust before she began middle school, where the feeling of not belonging followed her.

Life would hand her a pair of tragedies that made those years even harder. In 2015 an older sister and her father died of cancer within a few months of each other.

“It was a very tough time for all of our family to be able to come from that place and see the light, because it was a dark time,” she said.

As the youngest of six siblings, Bolaños felt like she would need to be the one to lead her family out of the darkness. Though she struggled with depression after the deaths, she always tried to have a smile on her face so her family members might feel a little better.

During high school, Bolaños was determined to get good grades. She spent most of her time studying or with her family, missing out on socializing and extracurriculars.

Those expectations put pressure on her young shoulders. She said that prayer helped her deal with the pressure, but so did acceptance. As much as it hurt, she knew nothing could bring her loved ones back.

Her older sister had been academically inclined. She wanted to go to college, graduate and start a career. Bolaños found motivation in her sister’s ambitions.

“I think I saw it in a way that if she was not going to be here to achieve her dreams and live the life that she always wanted … then I was going to do it for her,” Bolaños said.

She earned a full ride scholarship to Heritage University, where she studied business administration and was the first of her siblings to graduate college.

She also participated in student government for two years and served as a leader in a club for first-generation college students. She helped connect students with scholarships, networking opportunities and community service projects. She felt like she finally made up for activities she missed earlier in her schooling career, when grades and family took over all her time.

“I feel like I am the opposite of what I was in high school,” she said.

Winona Wynn, one of her professors, described Bolaños as a “gift” of a student.

“She's vibrant. She's motivated. She's involved,” Wynn said.

Wynn is Heritage’s Leadership Alliance coordinator. The alliance places students from participating colleges and universities at other institutions for the summer. Bolaños applied for the program by analyzing a book through a sociological lens focused on traditional Mexican gender roles. Her work earned her a spot in a national cohort of only about 30 students that spent a summer at Johns Hopkins University.

Wynn said academics from the country’s top colleges saw the value in Bolaños’ work, which she was able to present at another prominent university through the Mellon Mays fellowship program.

“If it's a talk, if it’s a speech, if it's a contribution of any kind in any arena, she is committed to making that shine and reflect not only really well on her, but on the community that she represents, and on the university and on the support that she's received,” Wynn said.

Facilitating changes

Bolaños held fast to the belief that if she wanted things to be different she would have to be the one to change them. It’s an attitude that she will carry with her in her new role within Heritage University’s Office of Advancement, which oversees fundraising. She started in her position a few weeks ago and said she’s excited to give back to the university that changed her life.

One of her goals is to help donors and students connect with one another.

“There's two ways that money comes to Heritage, which is through admissions and gifts from our donors,” she said. “Bridging that gap between the disconnection that sometimes happens between our donors and our students, I want to create that relationship and that bridge between them.”

She also wants to create change within her family. She said that while growing up, she sometimes kept her feelings to herself. But now that she is an aunt to 12 nieces and nephews, she wants them to know they can always talk to her.

If she could go back in time and talk to her third-grade self, she would tell her that life will get harder. But she should be proud each day that she makes it through.

“And after the very heavy and dark storms, the sunlight will come out,” she said.

Contact Vanessa Ontiveros at

Education Reporter

Vanessa Ontiveros is the education reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic. She grew up near Los Angeles but has happily made Yakima her new home. She is passionate about reporting stories that serve the community and highlight various aspects of the educational system.She also hosts a podcast that discusses local arts education, Yakima Arts Talk, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. The daughter of two longtime public school teachers, she is always looking to include community voices in her work.

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