Stteffany Durán: The Meaning of Papelito

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Stteffany Durán, '18 Psychology, persevered through many challenges to become UW Tacoma's 2018 Chancellor's Medalist.

First-generation college student Stteffany Durán came to the U.S from Mexico as a five-year-old. “Leaving your country, leaving your culture, it’s maybe not because you want to,” said Durán. “Most people are trying to provide a better education for their kids, which is why my parents came.”

Durán, the recipient of the 2018 UW Tacoma Chancellor’s Medal, has overcome fears of deportation, lack of financial resources and the psychological costs of such pressures. She has been on the Dean’s List every quarter at UW Tacoma.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Why are you going to school? You can’t even get a real job after.’ As if I didn’t have a right to an education. I don’t think me being an immigrant, you know, reflects whether I can complete school or not,” said Durán.

She transferred to UW Tacoma from Highline College in 2016. “I was a bio major. It wasn’t really fulfilling me and I took a couple of psych courses and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it,’” she said.

Durán is a research assistant on a project led by Drs. Vanessa de Veritch Woodside and Rachel Hershberg, both assistant professors in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. They are documenting the experiences of immigrants and refugees who, after having been detained at the Northwest Detention Center, are now resettled in South Sound communities.

“When we were thinking about potential candidates to ask to join the research team, Stteffany immediately popped into my mind,” said de Veritch Woodside. “She is incredibly poised,” said Hershberg. “Confident, down to business, a balance of being very empathetic but also very serious, as you need to be when you are asking questions about people’s experiences of detention or being undocumented.”

Durán has emerged as a student leader, serving as treasurer of the Psychology Club, and completing a student leadership certificate. She is a volunteer in the mental health unit at St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

Reflecting on her work with de Veritch Woodside and Hershberg, Durán said when she started interviewing immigrants, she assumed their stories would be similar to her own experience. “Sometimes you kind of think, ‘Well, I’m an immigrant. I know what it’s like to be an immigrant.’ You think you know everyone. But everybody’s story is so different.”

Durán’s own story has gone in directions she and her parents could hardly have imagined when they first crossed the border into this country. The degree in psychology she receives from UW is in itself just a little piece of paper, or, as her parents call it, a ‘papelito.’ But that paper represents a hard-won accomplishment. Says Durán, “That little piece of paper matters because no one can take away your education once you’ve earned it.”

Return to 2018 Commencement: 1,850 Change Makers

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / June 9, 2018
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or