Meet UndocuGrad Beni Merlin, PhD in Sociology from UC Merced


(Interviewed by Carolina Valdivia)
unnamedBeni was born in Patzcuaro Michoacan, Mexico. He is currently a first year doctoral student in Sociology at UC Merced. He is interested in researching the experiences of undocumented students in higher education. Beni graduated from Sonoma State University on 2014 with a BA in Sociology. While at Sonoma State University, Beni conducted research with undocumented students, which he presented to faculty and administrators at various events and campuses. Out of that research project with fellow students and staff, came the founding of the undocumented student club called the Santa Rosa Junior College Dreamers Club and the opening of the Dream Center. Most recently, students created the Sonoma State Dreamers Club.

What motivated you to apply to grad school?

I think before explaining what motivated me to apply to grad school I need to talk about what motivated me to finish my Bachelors degree. I wasn’t a very good student and didn’t care much for my grades. The first time I realized how privileged I was, for even being at a four year university, was when I took a class with my first Latina professor. She basically called me out for being in a position that not many latinos/as get to. And that I was just wasting my opportunity by not working harder in class. I then realized how selfish I was being, how bad of an example I was. I never thought a professor would care enough to say that to me. I definitely took that to heart, so much so, that I wanted to increase my GPA. Once I committed to that I started really enjoying the classes, the readings, the homework. Coincidently that same professor assigned me the first article on undocumented students I read. It was an article called, “Learning to be Illegal: Undocumented Youth and Shifting Legal Contexts in the Transition to Adulthood” by Roberto Gonzales. This article really explained so much to me. I learned I was undocumented when I turned sixteen and it hit me really hard, mentally, and it certainly affected my motivation for school and college. It really changed my aspirations, I didn’t just want to get better grades to be a good role model, I wanted to go to graduate school and do research on undocumented students too.

When applying to graduate school, what was most beneficial to you?

When applying to graduate school, I benefitted by having such an amazing support system. All my mentors believed that I could get accepted into a graduate program. All my professors thought I would succeed in a graduate program. I reached out to as many graduate students and undocumented students as I could. They were all very open to helping answer any questions and concerns I had about grad school and being undocumented. I was also privileged enough to qualify for DACA and be in a financially stable situation. Just applying to graduate school was super expensive and tiring. Taking the GRE, paying to send your test scores, paying for each school’s application fee. This is on top of meeting all the other requirements. It’s also very time-consuming, time that I had because I applied after I had already graduated. Not everyone has these things and thats why it can be difficult to meet all the requirements and deadlines for grad school. I also benefitted from DACA, I’ve met many bright students that are ineligible for DACA and so they don’t qualify for many of the things I did/do.

What do you like the most about being in graduate school?

I like almost everything about graduate school. When my parents brought me to the U.S. when I was three. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my two sisters and my parents. Ever since, we’ve lived in low income apartments. So when I started my program, I moved into the suburbs and so it still feels surreal. I used to get paid to work with my dad and help him with gardening and landscaping. Now I get paid to sit in a sociology class and learn things I am interested in, which is only possible because I happen to qualify for DACA. Growing up I never knew anyone with a Bachelors degree, now I’m friends with people who have their PhD’s. My biggest worry is finishing my readings, which are a lot, but it’s nowhere near my worries of the past. What I like the least is that there are not more of us Latinos/as and undocumented students in graduate programs. I think we can all go to graduate school, I don’t believe in the myth of meritocracy. I don’t believe I’m smarter than anyone else. I don’t deserve to be here more than anyone. I want more people, especially low-income, people of color, and undocumented youth to believe they deserve to be in graduate school. I want more resources for them to get to this point. Also if you’re undocumented and don’t qualify for DACA, look into the graduate programs at private colleges. That’s where most of the funding for non-DACA students is.

What is your biggest challenge in completing graduate school?

My biggest challenge in completing graduate school is having the burden of so many people believing in me and not wanting to let them down. I want to make sure that they don’t regret helping me. I especially want to pay back my family for everything. I want to make sure my parents are comfortable as they get older. Both my sisters didn’t get the support they needed to succeed in high school and the community college. They didn’t get the opportunities I did. They all work so hard that they definitely deserve to be here more than I do. These motivations make challenges in grad school worth it.

What is one piece of advice you have for other undocumented students considering/applying to graduate school?

It’s so important to have a strong support system in being successful in the application process (which you can say the same about doing well in high school and getting into college). Unfortunately, not all of us have the benefit of a great support group or equal opportunity to be in a position to apply to graduate school. I would say reach out to grad students in the programs you are interested in applying to. They can share insights to the school, professors, and what to expect. If you can find an undocumented student in those programs, it’s even more helpful. If you want to get into grad school for sociology, I would love to help. I can also try to find people in other graduate programs too, if I can help in that way. Or contact Carolina because she has helped me with everything! You’re the best Carolina!

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

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