By ROBERT W. FERNANDEZ
Growing up undocumented is a difficult and constant internal struggle, but you have to remember that you are not alone in this. One of the most important things you can do as an undocumented immigrant is to share your story, to connect and learn from other immigrants in your similar situation. I understand how difficult it is to open up about your situation, as I lived in the shadows for most of my life. But you must cast those fears aside and step out of the shadows. By sharing your story, you can educate others who are in a similar situation and help others understand the daily struggles of undocumented immigrants. In sharing my story, I hope you can learn from my struggles, lessons and mistakes as a former undocumented student.
High School/Community College
My high school experience was not a great one, as I had to take on several jobs to help save up for college, which left little time to study for courses like AP biology and calculus. I was told that I would not excel in these classes and the teachers gave up on me. To make matters worse, I found out in the last year of high school back in 2007, that I was “undocumented”. At the time, I did not know what that meant; all I knew was that I had to keep this secret from everyone for fear of being deported. This is when I first started living in the shadows. However, it was not until I was applying to four-year colleges, that the impact of being “undocumented” sinked in. I could not go to same colleges that all my peers were getting accepted to, all because I lacked a social security card. At the time, I was unaware that there were private colleges such as Ivy League institutions that accepted undocumented students and even provided financial aid. I encourage undocumented students to search for and apply to these schools.
While my only choice was to go to a community college in New Jersey, I decided to make the most of my limited opportunities. At Union County College, I was still in the shadows and it was not until I took an introductory course in history, where I met another fellow dreamer in the same situation as I was. For the first time, I was not alone in the shadows and we discussed our ambitions, fears, and ways to pursue a higher education despite our limitations. While I was content that there was someone I can relate to, I wish I had access to the several outlets now available to undocumented students where I could share my experiences and develop a support group to talk to during these tough times. While I was majoring in Business Administration in community college, I was unsure what opportunities I could take within this major given my lack of a green card. I went to a guidance counselor at the community college to ask for advice for what steps I can take given my situation and she told me, “You don’t belong here”.
Despite this negativity, I did not let it deter me from my education. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t pursue an education, you are responsible for how far you go down your career, undocumented or not. I wanted a way out from the shadows and I found it when I took my first introductory biology class. It was in this class where my interest in science began by learning about Darwin’s theory of evolution and where I found my first mentor. I strongly encourage undocumented students to find a mentor, someone that can help them find their way and fuel their ambitions. My mentor, Dr. Felton, understood that I was undocumented and she still invested me, which was something I did not experience before, someone that cared despite my undocumented status. She encouraged me to do independent study projects to broaden my mind; one of the three projects I worked on was on understanding common misconceptions regarding evolution. She connected me to a scientist, Kenneth Miller, who advocates on the importance of teaching the theory of evolution, and with her guidance I was able to interview him at Brown University for my project. As I was nearing graduation, I was unsure of what my next steps were. I went to a college fair in the community college I was attending to get answers. I told each college representative about my grade point average, community service experiences, and ambitions. And every single one of them turned me down because I did not have a green card. I felt hurt that despite my hard work, the lack of a green card was going to be standing in my way. My only shot was to apply to Ivy League colleges, but unfortunately I was turned down as well. I graduated in the top of my class and with several honors, but I felt ashamed because I did not know what my next steps were. In the current climate, I hope that every undocumented student knows that there are more colleges open to accepting them and that they should apply to several colleges despite how unlikely it may seem to get accepted at the time.
Transferring to a 4-Year College
My friend from community college told me that the City University of New York, accepts undocumented students and I knew this was my way out. I felt if I stayed in NJ, my educational opportunities would be limited, so in 2009, I decided to leave the state, my family, and make it on my own in New York. I worked as a busboy, waiter, and deli worker for several months saving enough money so I can afford college tuition. I remember there were days were I barely ate because I wanted to afford rent, but I knew my education was worth it, so I endured. I was accepted to York College, CUNY where I decided to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Biotechnology and I knew this was my shot to show everyone and prove to myself that I deserve to be here and the fact that I did not have a green card will not stop me from pursuing my ambitions. It was in a laboratory biology course, that a professor, Dr. Simon, took me aside after class and asked me if I was interested in doing research. At the time I did not know if I should do research considering I was busy working, but I am glad I did as this opened the door for several opportunities that would have been closed. Once again, I strongly encourage undocumented students to find their mentors, especially those interested in pursing a career in the sciences. Throughout the next couple of years as an undergraduate student, I worked in her lab studying the social behavior of the fruit fly. It was because of her mentorship that I was able to present my research at academic conferences, apply for competitive scholarships, conduct summer research at Princeton University, and apply for graduate schools. Furthermore, she was the first one who encouraged me to share my undocumented story and it showed me the importance of not hiding who I am, but to embrace it. Her mentorship led to a domino effect where other faculty members in the biology, physics, and other departments invested in me and supported my endeavors. I am truly grateful for the mentorship they provided me and because of them I was accepted to several graduate schools in the sciences and I ended up at Yale University where I am pursuing a Ph.D in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry.
It was a month before I started graduate school, when I received notice that my paperwork came through and I was finally a permanent resident. For so long I lived in the shadows, limited at every step, and now I was no longer limited. It was a strange feeling; I was overwhelmed with different emotions as I was content that there is nothing holding me back now. But I also went through an identity crisis as for so long I identified myself as undocumented and now I did not know who I was. This identity crisis and the fact that my mother was going through immigration issues at the time led me to struggle academically in my first year of graduate school. After I worked hard to get here and my mother has sacrificed so much, I was ashamed that I was going through this. After my first semester, I confided in the DGS of my department about my struggles and I made the choice not to give up and to continue my graduate studies. One of the hardest lessons I learned was to ask for help and to not take on all of this alone. With the support of my mother, my friends, and the faculty of the department (especially my PI, Michael Koelle, whose lab I am conducting my thesis in), I worked hard and excelled in my graduate school courses and passed my qualifying exams. I no longer face the identity crisis I experienced earlier on. I know who I am now and all those years of being undocumented molded me to persevere and to give back, because if it was not for my mentors this road would have been much harder.
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