Tips for applying to grad school as an undocumented student



I recently completed my second year as a doctoral student at Harvard and I know that many of you are getting ready to apply to graduate school so I wanted to share my experience and advice.

In 2009, I was in my third year of college at Cal State San Marcos.  I was double majoring in Sociology and Criminology, and minoring in Spanish.  I was part of a research team exploring the educational experiences for undocumented students.  And I was very active on the ground fighting to address issues that affect undocumented communities.  In the midst of my classes, research, organizing, internships, and more, I was a year away from graduating and I wasn’t quite sure what career I wanted to pursue.  I had gone in to college thinking that I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, but I found my passion in research, teaching, and working with college students at various capacities (e.g. mentoring and organizing).  In 2009, I realized that I wanted to pursue a graduate school education so that I could become a professor. 

The path to graduate school as an undocumented student was not easy.  I didn’t know about graduate school until my third year of college and I also didn’t know of any undocumented students who had made it to grad school.  How would I pay for graduate school if I was already struggling to pay for college?  While we had AB 540 in the state of California, which allowed me to pay in-state (as opposed to out-of-state) tuition, the CA Dream Act or DACA were nowhere in sight.  Despite my concerns and lack of knowledge about the grad school application process, I was determined and I had a community to support me.

If you are undocumented and applying to graduate school, it is important that you connect with undocumented graduate students.  As soon as I knew that I wanted to pursue a graduate school education, I started reaching out to fellow undocumented organizers and they connected me with undocumented grad students.  Little by little, I started hearing about their experiences and pieces of advice.  They helped me figure out how to pay for graduate school applications, how to approach grad programs about financial aid options for undocumented students, how to disclose my status in my application, and more.  Their insight was extremely helpful.  Not only did they guide me along the way, but I also felt inspired and motivated to keep going because I had their support.

Equally important to your journey is to find a mentor.  Develop/strengthen your relationships with your professors.  They will be able to guide you through the steps of the application process (and beyond!) offering you invaluable advice about writing your statements, requesting letters of recommendation, putting together a CV, studying for the GRE/LSAT/MCAT, and much more.

With these two pieces of advice in mind, I would also encourage you to not be afraid to ask for help.  Growing up undocumented, I learned to hide my lack of legal immigration status.  The fear of deportation was always there.  It wasn’t until I met fellow undocumented students who were active in community organizing and open about their status, that I began to feel comfortable about sharing my own status.  I was still strategic of course as to who I would (or not) share this information with, but I became increasingly public about my status and experience.  And I realized that being undocumented comes with many challenges, but I was not alone and there were people willing to help me.  So whether it means you reach out to your mentor(s), undocumented graduate students, family, friends, etc.- the takeaway here is to know that you are not alone and we are here to support you pursue your goals.

I should say that this post is of course not meant to be a comprehensive guide to graduate school, but it is part of the broader dialogue and support we provide on this blog.  A few weeks ago I asked fellow grad students what their tips are for undocumented folks applying to grad school and here are their amazing pieces of advice:

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If you are applying to graduate school, I would encourage you to also check out this webinar and post where I discuss different ways to pay for grad school as an undocumented student.  There, I go into greater detail about fundraising and securing scholarship opportunities to pay for graduate school.  And don’t forget to check out the inspirational stories and pieces of advice written by fellow undocumented graduate students.  If you have any questions or concerns about applying to graduate school as an undocumented student, make sure to comment below.

How has this blog helped you?  Submit your testimonial and help us feature how our work has impacted people from all across the U.S.

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Categories: Applying to grad school

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