WSU grad defies expectations in landscape architecture

First-generation student sets the stage for future Latina students.



Michelle Cordova-Ramirez is a first-generation student graduating with a bachelor’s in landscape architecture.

ERIN MULLINS, Evergreen reporter

One percent of landscape architects are Latina, but one graduating WSU student proves the fighting spirit Cougs are known for. 

Michelle Cordova-Ramirez, a first-generation student graduating with a bachelor’s in landscape architecture, said she decided to be the example to set the stage for future Latina students. Cordova-Ramirez was born in Seattle and raised in Mexico until she was one year old.  She started at WSU during the Fall 2019 semester.

Cordova-Ramirez is a teaching assistant for sophomore classes and said she is starting to see more Latino students in those classes. 

“So just being able to be a face for them, especially as a TA being able to be that source of representation. Just for them to be able to see a Latina in the major that’s about to graduate is one of the main reasons why I’m doing this,” she said. “I am proof that Latinas can do it.” 

Landscape architecture is a practice that is dedicated to creating meaningful spaces outdoors ranging from a backyard to a watershed plan, said Jolie Kaytes, professor in the School of Design and Construction and landscape architecture program head. 

Cordova-Ramirez said she plans to design more green spaces in towns and cities in order to help combat climate change, including climate restorative projects that help the native flora and fauna thrive. 

“When we go to the cities, they’re full of concrete jungle. So all you see is concrete around. You don’t see a lot of nature,” she said.  “And we’re gonna have to start undoing a lot of that. A lot of taking out concrete and just restoring it with nature.”

Kaytes said Corova-Ramirez has always exhibited strong ethical values. 

“She has been very consistent in wanting to walk her talk,” she said. “In terms of the values, she holds true as they relate to being a conscientious landscape architect … to support increased diversity among landscape architecture practitioners.”

Cordova-Ramirez said she is motivated by wanting to give back to her community and work in minority neighborhoods. She learned in her classes that in predominantly minority neighborhoods, there is not as much access to nature as other neighborhoods do.

In the future, 10 to 15 years down the line, Cordova-Ramirez said she wants to go back to Mexico and work there. When she told her family in Mexico about becoming a landscape architect, they did not know what she was talking about because there are few landscape architectures in the country. 

Kaytes said she sees Cordova-Ramirez doing “wonderful things,” in the future. She will remember Cordova-Ramirez’s positive spirit, independence, joy and compassion.

“Her curiosity and inquisitive spirit. She seems genuinely intrigued with the world,” Kaytes said. “She is committed to do good within that world and that stands out quite strongly. Just her dedication to making a positive contribution.”

For now, Cordova-Ramirez has a job lined up in the U.S., which relieved a lot of worries for her as she is an independent student. Since most of her family is in Mexico, being independent has been one of her biggest main struggles.

“It’s just especially hard because a lot of people that are first generation, they’re able to go back to their parents on the weekend to visit them and stuff. But for me, it’s been kind of hard to be mostly on my own,” she said. “My family in Mexico, my mom, she’s supported me emotionally. But financially I’ve always had to see for myself.”

Cordova-Ramirez’s mother applied for a tourist visa for her graduation but was denied, so none of her family will be able to attend her graduation, she said.  However, her boyfriend will attend the commencement ceremony. He has been her main support system for the past couple of years. 

Her mother did not finish middle school but has always encouraged her to pursue higher education, she said.

“She has a saying that she always tells me,” Cordova-Ramirez said. “It’s in Spanish, it says: ‘El perico donde quiera es verde,’ which means, ‘The parrot is green anywhere.’ So wherever I go, I will succeed and everything.”

She said she wanted to break generational chains by pursuing higher education. The chance to be successful is what has inspired her the most. Cordova-Ramirez wants to change the world with her projects. 

“Even if it’s a small project, especially with climate change, we’re able to be like a little lung for the world that’s gonna be able to help it in the future,” she said. “That’s what has drawn me to [landscape architecture] the most, just being able to give back and help the world.” 

Kaytes said Cordova-Ramirez is “ready” for her future career. She has seen increased confidence, bolder design and even more commitment to the profession in Cordova-Ramirez as she has progressed through classes.

Cordova-Ramirez also owns a small business. She said she sells Mexican jewelry online. The jewelry is handmade by the Wixárika, an indigenous group in Mexico. The jewelry can take up to three hours to make per accessory, so Cordova-Ramirez has made donations to the artists in addition to her purchases. 

She said she also started the Ballet Folklórico de WSU student group, which offers traditional Mexican dancing.

Cordova-Ramirez said she has always been a self-starter and a leader, which has motivated her to follow her endeavors to completion. 

“We have a saying that my grandpa used to say, which is, ‘Los Ramirez no estamos programados para la derrota’, which means that as Ramirez … we are not programmed for failure,” she said. “So having that mindset in the back of my mind that me, as a Ramirez, I’m not programmed to fail. I think that has been one of my biggest motivations.”