By DIANA ORTIZ GIRON
I was born into a single-mother household in Tijuana, Mexico. When I was only six years old, my mother managed to get me and my two older siblings a tourist visa so that after two years of separation we could join her in Azusa, California. I arrived the summer of 1998, just in time to attend 1st grade. Without any options to legalize their status, my family became “undocumented” when they overstayed their tourist visa. Although my brother was the first in my family to attend college at UCLA, he unfortunately at that time did not qualify for financial aid at this public institution. Therefore, I was the first to graduate college and attend graduate school due to the privilege of attending Pomona College, a private liberal arts school that granted me a generous full-ride scholarship despite my undocumented status. At Pomona, I felt an urgent need to increase the visibility of undocumented students. This resulted in my co-founding of IDEAS at the Claremont Colleges, an immigrant rights awareness and support group for undocumented students and allies. I was fortunate to get DACA in 2013 and shortly after got my driver’s license and social security number at age 20. In 2014, I graduated from Pomona College with a B.A. in History and a minor in Chicano/a Latino/a Studies. In search of fulfilling my vocational aspirations to serve the immigrant community I applied and gained admission into Harvard Divinity School. Upon graduating with my Master of Divinity this past May of 2017, I aspire to advocate for the educational equity of low-income, first-generation, and undocumented students via my work in higher education and the non-profit industry. My ultimate career goal would be to become the director of a resource center for undocumented students.
What motivated me to pursue a higher education:
Like many undocumented students, attending graduate school would give me a couple more years of security. It would delay the daunting challenge of joining the job market. I was one of those students who would say, “I’m staying in school and keep piling those degrees until immigration reform passes.” I was intellectually intrigued by the field of religious studies and wanted to pursue a degree that would not only engage me academically but would provide me with vocational training. My masters program was three years—which was just the right amount of time for me, not too long and not too short. My program had a lot of requirements, including a thesis paper; but what it allowed me to do was to explore my vocational interests. I was required to complete two field education units of my choice. My first placement included working for a immigration rights nonprofit in Boston; while my second one allowed me to work for a higher education office at Harvard College. I enjoyed working with both high school and college students and realized my desire to provide student services and institutional support to historically underserved students. My graduate school program was flexible enough to allow me to pursue this non-traditional form of ministry. Instead of applying my MDiv to serve religious institutions I will be using it to serve educational institutions. Attending HDS came with a variety of perks, including the ability to be among an increasingly diversifying student body, the ability to cross-register into other Harvard graduate schools, and the benefit of qualifying for the institutional aid needed to pay for my entire tuition.
I would’ve never known anything about divinity school if it were not for a Latino Pitzer student who told me about his interest in politics and religion. My career aspirations were limited to being either a doctor or a lawyer. So when I found out that you could study religious studies I was immediately intrigued because of my academic interests in the religious and spiritual dimensions of social justice movements throughout history. When it was time for me to consider graduate school, this student sent me a link to an application for the Diversity and Explorations Program at Harvard Divinity School. They made it fiscally possible for me to attend this three day campus visit by flying me in, feeding me, and housing me. (Note: this was before DACA and thus the first time that I flew with my Mexican passport). The program gave me the opportunity to imagine myself pursuing my graduate studies at Harvard. Meeting current students who shared my socio-economic and religious backgrounds also encouraged me to believe that I could also thrive in this graduate program. The in-person visit also provided me with the ability to personally ask financial and admission officers about their policies toward undocumented students. I wanted to be sure that they would accept me if I applied and that they would give me institutional financial aid. When I asked my questions they appeased my worries and guaranteed that if admitted I would be granted need-based financial aid, which for me meant full-tuition given my low-income status. This program gave me the courage and confidence to apply to this graduate program and challenged me to think about how I would craft this program to fit my vocational interests. The hardest part was explaining to my Latino community (including family) why I wanted to pursue an MDiv instead of a JD. The former just didn’t seem to be practical. What kind of job would I get with it and what is religious studies anyways?! Translating my graduate school experience and redefining the meaning of an MDiv is something that I am constantly challenged to do. Specially for skeptics who undervalue my masters degree and who interrogate me upon not truly understanding the value of divinity school and the important role that it plays in our world.
My biggest challenge in graduate school was moving across the country to an unknown city and without the support of my family and friends. I felt extremely homesick my first semester and was completely unprepared to face the winter storms of 2014. I had limited savings to pay for my transition costs and also did not anticipate how expensive it would be to live around the Cambridge area. Similar to my undergrad, I could not afford to go out and explore Boston. In fact, I cooked homemade meals and took lunches to school throughout my entire three years in graduate school. Fortunately, I found a local church which has become a big part of my social support and remained connected to a core group of Latino peers at HDS. Being out of state and with limited financial opportunities (due to my ineligibility for work-study and federal grants) meant I couldn’t go home to visit family and friends during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. My school’s stipend allowed me to cover most of my housing but I picked up babysitting in order to pay for my food and personal expenses. I did not struggle academically because I felt like my undergraduate program prepared me really well but I did feel disconnected from the Latino and immigrant community due to my inability to get too involved my first year when I was transitioning into graduate school. Things got better when I became more involved on campus and joined activist efforts in support of workers and undocumented student issues. The weather never got better and made it difficult to exercise outdoors. Overall, finding Latinos passionate about social justice and a strong spiritual community allowed me to eventually find my rhythm in graduate school.
I would advice undocumented students to be proactive about their higher education research of undocu-friendly higher educational institutions. I recommend applying to more than one college/graduate program just in case you get rejected or do not obtain the proper financial aid package needed to attend that school. I applied to two graduate programs and even despite actively asking about my financial aid prospects for the other program they eventually were not able to solidify me with any financial aid assistance. Interested students should also connect with current undocumented students attending their prospective schools in order to learn about the “survival tips” or inside scoop on how to navigate that educational institution as an undocumented student. To have strong letters of recommendation, students should maintain close relationships with teachers or professors/mentors whom they plan to ask for a recommendation. Learning to network and to maintain professional relationships will in the long run equip students with the ability to pursue a higher education. Keep in mind that GRE scores are also not the determining factor of your admission. Don’t allow certain application requirements to intimidate you and always attempt to create your own opportunities where none exist. Try to get a fee waiver for your graduate school applications and do not wait until your senior year to do your research. I applied to the DivEx Program which allowed me to visit HDS when I was a junior. This allowed me enough time to come back to my college and take courses that appealed to the graduate program I was applying to. Anticipate challenges but remember that you have already overcome so much and will continue to fight for your dreams!
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