It started with a bet.
Last September, when Victor Zamora was leaving Seattle to begin a new job at Oregon State University, he was discussing his move with a friend’s father-in-law.
The man, an Oregon State grad, said he couldn’t wait to see Zamora attired in glorious orange, a color Zamora considered befitting pumpkins but ill-suited for his wardrobe. He told the man he didn’t like orange, had never worn it and never would. He bet dinner on it.
The man, unopposed to swindling milk from a baby, accepted the wager.
Three days into his job as assistant director of admissions for multicultural recruiting, Zamora found himself flipping through the racks at the bookstore. Next time he’s in Seattle, he says, he will gladly pull out his billfold.
Upon arriving in Corvallis, Zamora was stunned to see how a color could mean so much. Like red, white and blue—it represented allegiance to a community that values tradition and, with all due respect, vilifies any combination of yellow and green.
That was Lesson No. 1.
“I realized it was part of the culture here. You feel a little left out if you don’t wear orange,” he says. “I was shocked to see that.”
So when he travels to high schools to describe the merits of OSU, he tells students they will gain lifelong membership in an institution whose values extend throughout and beyond a city colored orange.
“You don’t just become a student, you become a resident of Corvallis, a true college town where you will see people with no ties to the school attending lectures. The entire city welcomes you and supports you. That won’t go away,” he says.
A second advantage Zamora emphasizes is the opportunity to do research, a priority within the OSU landscape that encourages students to discover innovative paths separating past from future through a variety of fields.
“When people think of research, they think about people sitting in a lab studying test tubes, but it’s a lot more than that,” he says. “I try to paint a different picture of what research is and how it goes well beyond the sciences.”
His third selling point is the network of activities and organizations based on individual interests, values and needs. Regardless of background and circumstance, there’s room on the couch for everyone.
“We’re a school that offers support and opportunities for all students,” Zamora says. “We look at the entire person. It’s not just academics. We want to develop you as a person.”
For first-generation students, the prospect of attending a university might feel beyond their grasps, Zamora says. They tell him they’re not smart enough or rich enough or that they simply don’t belong in college.
“When they say that, it’s because someone has told them that,” he says. “I start asking them why they think that, and I tell them there scholarships, and even if their grades aren’t that good, they can still go to college.”
Diversity is an integral component of the school’s richness, Zamora says. Through inclusion, students not only are benefactors, they, like all students, are contributors to goals of the university, one of which is to inspire. Zamora is proof of that.
His parents came to the United States from Barranca Seca, Michoacan in Mexico, a mountain community as beautiful as it is impoverished. When they married and prepared for the birth of their first child, Victor, they felt a responsibility to look beyond their dusty roads and house with no running water. And so they looked north.
They crossed the border and hiked through the desert hoping their will, rather than their illegal status, would allow them a place in a country whose laws did not welcome them.
In the early 1980s, the Zamoras found opportunity in an apple orchard in central Washington, where they thinned, irrigated, pruned and packaged throughout years of hard work, which continues today.
Through the Reagan administration’s Reform and Control Act in 1986, the Zamoras received permanent residency status, and his mother has since become a United States citizen. Countless people in many languages have told the same story of sacrifice and pursuit.
“They always told me, ‘We came here to give you a better life. We came here so you wouldn’t have to work in the fields. We’re here to improve your lives.’ ”
As a youngster, Zamora took on the role of interpreter for his parents at schools, doctor’s offices and other venues. By age 10 he understood the indignity of nuance.
“They didn’t speak English, and my dad only had a fourth-grade education. He had very poor handwriting, and when he filled out forms, people would look at him like he was stupid. It made him mad. When a child is the voice of a family, he picks up on that.”
More than anything, those experiences instilled resolve in Zamora and his three siblings, all of whom have pursued higher education.
His sister Veronica is head administrative assistant at Central Washington University’s College Assistance Migrant Program. She has an associate’s degree and is working toward a bachelor’s.
Another sister, Ruvi, has a bachelor’s degree in history from Seattle University and works in the Kittitas County court system in Washington. Younger brother, Omar, attends Linn-Benton Community College.
Zamora graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in family consumer science. He planned on teaching high school home economics and briefly worked as a substitute teacher before finding his place in admissions at CWU.
A year later, he became an admissions counselor at Seattle University, where he worked for five years before shifting to OSU. His role is to help develop a multicultural recruitment program and to inform and encourage students to continue their educations.
“It’s my job to help kids figure out their options,” he says. “My main concern is that they find a good fit. If that means considering a different school, I tell them that. I want to be sincere and honest. My hope is that they just go to college.”
By choosing OSU, however, there are unique benefits. He assures them they will leave with a respected diploma, ubiquitous will…and a suitcase stuffed with orange T-shirts.
You can bet on it.
Story and photo by Duane Noriyuki