Perseverance Leads to Success
Former basketball and water polo player Dides Urrutia (B.A., ’13) faces immigration problems throughout her college career but graduates in spring 2013 — 14 years later.
BY TODD PREPSKY
The Urrutias arrived on a tourist visa in 1989 and applied for asylum, but by the time their case was up for consideration Noriega had been captured and their request was denied. They appealed the decision in 1991 and waited five years to learn they were denied a second time. By this time, Dides was in high school and considered America to be the only home she knew. “Our parents didn’t share a lot about what was going on at the time,” Dides says. “I think they didn’t want to worry us and just wanted us to live our lives. But we knew something was up.”
During this tumultuous time Dides finished high school, and that summer she drew the attention of Cal State East Bay’s Women’s Basketball coach, Sara Judd, who recruited her for the team.
Fueled by her parents’ strong work ethic, Dides enrolled at Cal State East Bay. At 5’9” and naturally athletic, the new Pioneer joined both the water polo team and the basketball team in her freshman year. She had an immediate impact on the court, playing forward and center and gaining a reputation as a fierce rebounder. But the immigration issue was always there and money was also a problem. Because CSUEB was a Division III school, there were no funds designated for sports scholarships at that time. “She was dealt a tough hand,” Judd says. “She certainly got discouraged, but you wouldn’t know that from being around her.”
A third appeal brought a third denial in 2001, Dides’ junior year. In November the family voluntarily left the country to go back to Panama. That exile was shortlived, however, and they were able to return a month later through a stroke of good fortune — IBM decided to sponsor Dides’ father’s work visa. Dides returned to the United States with her mother and younger brother since they were still dependents. The good news was tempered by the bad, however, as Dides tore an ACL in her knee and had to sit out most of her junior season. Between the injury and not knowing her immigration status, her grades began to suffer. “All these issues made it hard for me to focus, so I wasn’t able to study like I should,” Dides says. “I had been a good student until that time, but it was hard to keep up.”
Dides had to return to Panama several more times. When she turned 21 in 2002, she “aged out” and was no longer considered a dependent. But because she was still technically in school, her coaches helped Dides by sending her schoolwork and providing moral support. She returned to the United States on a one-year student visa but it expired in 2004. “The immigration thing was always there. I dragged out school as long as I could to renew the visa, but my heart wasn’t in it,” Dides says. “Plus I had to go back to Panama to get another visa.” With her immigration status still unsettled, she withdrew from school in 2004. In 2007, Dides returned to school yet again, this time with the help of an immigration attorney. The stress of not having permanent status still weighed heavily and she had difficulty paying for classes, so she left school a second time. For the next several years she lived in the United States out of status. She spent that time earning money through babysitting, building up a network of clients.
But in 2013 things began to turn around for Dides. She still dreamed of finishing college, so it was appropriate that the California Dream Act made it possible. Passed two years earlier, it granted temporary legal status to immigrant children who grew up in the United States and had graduated from high school. With the help of her friend Beth Murdock, Dides returned to school under the Dream Act in the fall of 2012. “It was a really big deal. I was scared I wasn’t going to get in and scared that I was. I felt like I wouldn’t remember how to be a good student,” Dides says. She needn’t have worried. In her last two quarters she earned all A’s and one B, and walked across the graduation stage in June 2013 in front of her proud parents and brothers.
It took 14 years for Dides Urrutia to get her degree, truly a long and winding road. She credits her family and friends, especially her wife Melissa, who was a former teammate, as well as Judd and Murdock for helping to make it possible. “Everyone at East Bay was really supportive, from my friends and coaches to my professors. I felt like they had invested a lot in me and wanted me to continue even when I felt like I couldn’t,” Dides says. “To know that East Bay cared about me made all the difference.”
Judd credits Dides’ perseverance as the reason she kept her graduation dream alive over the years, a quality she inherited from her parents. “She has a super positive attitude,” Judd says. That’s the way she played basketball as well. She was a very positive teammate, and in the end that’s what led her to graduate.”