Stephanie Velasco, back left, on a recent volunteering trip to Nicaragua. • Courtesy Photo
Stephanie Velasco, back left, on a recent volunteering trip to Nicaragua. • Courtesy Photo

Born in Yakima, graduated from Wapato High School. Fathers who worked in the Alaskan canneries. Family from Seattle and attended the University of Washington. A passion for international social justice. Some of these descriptions apply to Gene Viernes, some to Silme Domingo, but all apply to the first recipient of the scholarship named in their honor.

Yet without receiving the memorial scholarship five years ago, Stephanie Velasco might never have learned their story and the similarities she shared with them.

Velasco became the first recipient of the $5,500 Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes Scholarship in Labor Studies in 2011. The graduating high school senior and class valedictorian was about to be a first-generation college student at the University of Washington.

Her father, uncles, and grandfather had worked in the canneries, but when she received the award at a dinner marking the 30th anniversary of their deaths, it was the first time Velasco really learned about the labor activists.

“It’s weird that I’d never heard of them before that,” she said. “Just knowing all the similarities, just knowing the hardships they went through, inspired me that I shouldn’t let anything stop me.”

Velasco said she hadn’t realized “what great leaders they were and the danger they were in.” After receiving the scholarship award, Velasco researched and read more about the labor activists. She was struck by the difficult and racist conditions of the canneries, how only white workers had fruits and vegetables to eat, or their own rooms.

Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo were working to change corrupt practices in the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union when they were assassinated.

On the afternoon of June 1, 1981, Viernes and Domingo were gunned down by gang members while working at the Pioneer Square hall of the ILWU Local 37. They were both just 29 years old. Later investigations linked the assassination to ILWU Local 37 leader Tony Baruso, with financial backing by Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Inlandboatman’s Union/ILWU Local 37 Regional Director Rich Gurtiza worked alongside Viernes and Domingo. He said he hoped recipients of their memorial scholarship, along with the general public, would acknowledge their legacy and their focus on civil rights and social justice.

“Those attributes hopefully carry on with those who receive the scholarship, [and they] acknowledge these things are important,” Gurtiza said.

The University of Washington, with its Harry Bridges Center of Labor Studies, made it a good fit for the scholarship, he said.

Funding came from the union, and Gurtiza called it “a way to give back” to members and their families, honoring their legacy as well.

He emphasized the activists’ pursuit of higher education. Viernes attended Central Washington University and studied history and ethnic studies, while Domingo went to the University of Washington and majored in political science.

This spring, Velasco graduated from UW with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing. She also minored in Spanish, and received a certificate of international studies in business.

Velasco wasted no time getting to work on her dreams of international social work after graduation. She flew to Nicaragua the night after donning her cap and gown, and helped build sanitation facilities for Global Brigades, an international nonprofit focused on health and economic inequality.

She’s passionate about education, healthcare and helping families in poverty.

“My dream job would be working at an international nonprofit,” Velasco said.

While the 23-year-old currently works as a bookkeeping assistant, she’s in the midst of the interview process to join the Peace Corps and volunteer in Nicaragua, where she’d work with communities on education and entrepreneurship.

Velasco also recently began volunteering with Social Venture Partners, a global philanthropy organization. She assists with marketing and social media for the Seattle Fast Pitch contest, in which Puget Sound businesses, nonprofit agencies and students present ideas to solve social problems.

Her advice to future scholarship recipients: Research Gene and Silme more.

“They followed through and fought for something they were passionate about, and I think that just relates to students in general, as well,” Velasco said.

In addition to remembering them and letting others know about the pair, Velasco said students could “implement that same drive and determination in their studies.”

She emphasized the importance of having a passion for what you’re studying, and not being afraid to switch majors.

After entering college with plans to study medicine, Velasco realized after the first few classes that her interests lay elsewhere. Her love of Spanish and travel led to the certificate of international business (CISB) program.

“I was so surprised, [the Foster School of Business is] very competitive and I was relieved to get in,” she said.

Working on events for CISB led her to focus on marketing. Last year, Velasco sat on the executive board of CISB student leadership, serving as VP of Social Media.

Velasco said she was “super grateful” for receiving the scholarship.

She said knowing about Filipinos from a similar background, and their dedication, inspired her to continue with her dreams “no matter how hard things get.”

The award also served as a catalyst to learning more about her family.

“The scholarship was a great reason to make my dad talk, and learn about his background,” Velasco said.

Students who apply for the scholarship need to demonstrate financial need and be accepted to the UW. The 2016 winner of the Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes Scholarship in Labor Studies has yet to be announced.  

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