Meet UndocuGrad Fabiola Santiago, MA in Public Health from UCLA


Fabi was born in Oaxaca, Mexico and came to the US in 1992 when she Fabigradpicwas 5 years old. Last year, she graduated from the UCLA School of Public Health with a Masters in Public Health (MPH). Currently, she is the Health and Equity Fellow with Human Impact Partners, an organization based in Oakland, CA. HIP conducts Health Impact Assessments.

How was the graduate school application process for you?  The application process was a difficult time for me because I was in removal proceedings. This means that while I was preparing applications and studying for the GRE, I was also reporting to immigration every couple months and attending court hearings, which would ultimately determine my deportation date. I was also working as a restaurant server as many hours as I could get my hands on and translating school nutrition materials as an independent contractor. Moreover, the day I was scheduled to take the GRE, the test administrators did not let me in because I couldn’t provide them with a state issued ID. They did not accept my Mexican Consulate ID or school ID and I couldn’t provide my passport because immigration confiscated it while I was in removal proceedings. I fought my way in by asking to speak to supervisors and providing every article in my wallet with my name on it, but when I finally sat down to take the exam I was exhausted, angry, frustrated, and practically took the exam in tears. This of course affected my score, but fortunately my personal statement along with the strong letters of recommendations got me admissions into my top choices.

What was your biggest challenge in completing graduate school? Too many to list or explain. It should suffice to inform the readers that while I was a full time graduate student, I was also working three jobs (restaurant server, translator, and program assistant) struggling to pay close to $7,000.00 each quarter in order to stay in my program—a program that gave me very little moral or social support. Not to mention taking on the responsibility of being my younger brother’s guardian—my parents were both deported and my US citizen brother was under part of my care. This also meant not having family support, both financial and social. I am grateful to my parents for teaching me to be a responsible independent person and equipping me with excellent financial and budgeting skills—without these skills I would not have been able to finish graduate school, and most importantly, pay for rent, bills, and other necessities to simply stay alive.

What is one piece of advice you would like to give other undocumented students considering/applying to graduate school? There are privileges in being unprivileged. As hard as grad school—and life for that matter—was during those years, I am extremely grateful to have zero debt. There are people I will always be indebted to, but it’s the best feeling to have my masters and not feel overwhelmed by loan payments. Recent laws are presenting undocumented students with more opportunities. Do not waste it; those of us who did not have this opportunity made many sacrifices. As beneficiaries of new policies I urge students to take advantage of it and do not, for any reason, take it for granted. It’s easy to feel entitled, but keep a humble heart and remember all those who did not and still do not have this opportunity.

A more practical recommendation that personally helped me was being open about my undocumented status. It gave my colleagues, professors, and administrators an understanding of my personal challenges and provided me with the opportunity to educate others about undocumented students and our overall broken immigration system—my personal favorite way to be an activist!

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Categories: UndocuGrads: Stories of former and current undocumented grad students

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