Federal Way-area grad copes with citizenship hurdle in college quest

Irais Cartier, 18, is facing a more difficult path to college than most high school graduates.

Cartier, who will graduate from Thomas Jefferson High School on June 8, is ineligible for federal financial aid and for many college scholarships because she is not a United States citizen.

“It’s been very hard, the whole process of immigration,” said Cartier, whose family moved to the Federal Way area from Mexico when she was 4 years old.

Although she had dreams of going to a university, Cartier plans to enroll at Seattle Central Community College next fall to save money. She hopes to complete her first two years at community college before transferring to the University of Washington and studying engineering.

Paying for college will be a struggle. Cartier’s mom supports three children on her earnings from a housecleaning business.

“We’re not ‘poor poor,’ but the money that we do have goes to the basic things we need,” Cartier said.

She knows her mom will help, but she also recognizes that it will be a struggle for the family in tough economic times.

“I prefer to try to fight this on my own first,” she said.

Cartier earns money cleaning a medical clinic with her mother three days a week. She paid for her prom and graduation with her own earnings this year. She hopes to get a job this summer working in an office as an administrative assistant to earn more money toward college.

Although Cartier has lived in the United States since she was a small child, she is still having difficulty gaining citizenship. She sometimes worries about federal officials coming after her family because of their citizenship status.

“It’s hard when you watch on the news people getting ripped away from their families,” she said.

Although they aren’t actual citizens, Cartier’s family practices the values of good citizenship, she said. Her mom pays taxes and the family hasn’t been in trouble with the law.

“Even though we’re not citizens, we’re good people,” she said.

Citizenship isn’t the only challenge Cartier has faced in getting her education. She discovered in the fourth grade that she was deaf in her left ear. Her hearing difficulty led to her falling far behind her classmates, and in middle school, she was placed in special education classes because she struggled with spelling and grammar.

“I had to go back to the basics in middle school, and that was really hard because not only did you have to learn the basics, you had to keep up with the new stuff,” she said.

After a lot of hard work with her teacher at Totem Middle School, Cartier was placed in the regular student population in high school. She gets by in her classes by asking teachers to seat her in a location where she can best hear. Although she still struggles at times with spelling and grammar, the teachers at Thomas Jefferson have been very patient and persistent with her, Cartier said.

Cartier will graduate with a 2.93 grade point average.

Last week, the Federal Way Noon Rotary Club announced Cartier as one of its 2008 scholarship winners. The news helped Cartier realize that despite her difficulties because of her citizenship, she will find a way to pay for college. The Rotary scholarship is for $1,000.

“It’s helping boost me also to fight more,” she said. “I love education. I love learning and the whole learning process. If I could forever stay in school, I would, but that can cost a lot of money.”

Cartier said she will remain optimistic.

“I’m a very religious person and I honestly believe my God is going to help me out,” she said. “The Rotary scholarship has given me hope and so I’ll take that and whatever God gives me next.”

Contact Margo Hoffman: or (253) 925-5565.

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