As a young girl, Olivia Arballo-Saenz found motivation through a car window as she and her mother passed the campus of Gonzaga University.
One day she would go to class there, she promised herself. For a few moments, poverty, homelessness and her parents’ substance abuse were consigned to a backseat.
The dream didn’t fade, however. Over the next decade and a half, Saenz combined smarts and grit with the kindness of others to find a better way, first to Gonzaga Prep and then to Stanford University with a full scholarship.
Her sophomore year begins next month.
Arballo-Saenz has a family story like few others. Her father is a Yaqui Indian but born in Mexico, while her mother is an Oglala Lakota from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Together they lived in Spokane, a place that at an early age Arballo-Saenz found to be, by her own description, “very white and monocultural.”
“I’ve always been hyper-aware of my racial identity,” said Arballo-Saenz, who is majoring in comparative studies in race and ethnicity.
“Stanford’s community is pretty exceptional, tight-knit and intimate, a lot of good energy,” she said. “I’ve developed a lot more willingness to discover more about my heritage.”
She’s visited Mexico as well as her maternal home in South Dakota, but Spokane has been home as long as she can remember. Books were a constant companion.
“When she was younger and her parents were together, she was read to a lot,” said Dana Oxford, with whose family Arballo-Saenz has lived since her junior year at Prep.
“She had a rock-solid family at the beginning,” Oxford said.
But drugs and alcohol took a toll, and the family fell apart. For close to a decade, Arballo-Saenz endured a “tumultuous” home life. She spent much of middle school at YMCA’s Center for Domestic Violence Survivors.
She earned a scholarship to Gonzaga Prep while living at the St. Margaret’s Shelter, which “definitely placed a lot of stress on me.”
Shame ran deep during high school.
“Classmates would say, ‘Let’s get together at your house,’ ”Arballo-Saenz recalled. “So I would give a fake address or make some other excuse.
“No one told me that I shouldn’t be ashamed, that it wasn’t my fault.”
During one class, a teacher referred to the East Sprague neighborhood as rife with crime and prostitution.
“Of course, that’s where I lived at the time,” she said.
Arballo-Saenz earned her A’s the hard way.
“All the students had an iPad, and that meant doing homework online,” she said. “We didn’t have internet, and sometimes we didn’t have electricity or water.”
The worst indignation was hurled by some of her classmates, who implied that Arballo-Saenz exploited her own difficult circumstances to earn her scholarships.
“Some people began to think (that I was) using my tragic backstory as some way to propel myself forward,” she said.
Meanwhile, her mother suffered from alcoholism. She hasn’t worked in a decade.
Craving stability, Arballo-Saenz moved out. After living with an uncle and then another family, she moved in with the Oxfords.
“It’s been great for all of us,” said Dana Oxford, who works with Arballo-Saenz at the Saranac Commons in downtown Spokane. “She’s so interesting to be around, and she has such a great smile.”
That smile got bigger on Dec. 1, 2016, when her college fate was decided. When choosing colleges through the QuestBridge National College Match – a need-based scholarship application program – she didn’t place Stanford at the top of her list.
Arballo-Saenz sought the Rev. Peter Byrne at Gonzaga Prep.
“I hunted him down and said, ‘I need you to pray that I can handle rejection,’ ” she told him.
Byrne replied, “You’re not going to need that, but I’ll pray with you anyway,” she recalled.