Navigating Higher Education Opportunities Series #2: Three Education Systems, One Undocumented Student

By SALVADOR

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I was academically dismissed from UCSB after one and a half years. During my time there I felt imposter syndrome and alone. There was not enough legal or financial support for undocumented students. There were many events for the LGBTQ community, Black, Asian, White, and Latino communities, but never for the undocumented population. Financial assistance was limited and while some of my peers would call home and have money wired to their accounts, I worked. The problem at UCSB was placing so much emphasis on these external things. At the end of the day the university judges us for our grades and after being on academic probation for three quarters, I was dropped from the university.

In January 2015, I returned to San Diego and worked as a Wal-Mart associate, day care program leader, cook, painter, and cement mixer. I was seeing the money but not the fulfillment. I had money to spend on materialistic things, but they lacked any real value to me. I was reminded of my legal status when I was kicked out of two jobs because my work permit expired (that I had received through DACA). I had filed for renewal and was awaiting my new permit to arrive in the mail. I asked for one week leave of absence but my request was declined and two days after being fired my renewed permit arrived. Just like that I was out of employment. This experience made me feel vulnerable. Although I had DACA, I did not have institutional protection and was backed by no one.

In June 2015 I enrolled into community college. It was difficult enrolling because the online application required a SSN number and considered me a non-resident. I had to go into the admissions office over ten times to have everything sorted out but immediately I began to see support for undocumented students at the community college. There were flyers for immigration forums, DACA assistance, legal and financial help all over the school walls and classrooms. The financial aspect was also incredible. As a DACA student, I was eligible for the BOG waiver and paid between $20-$40 dollars per semester during my entire time at community college for over 18 units! I was able to focus on my education and saved the money I was making from my jobs. There were textbook loan programs and almost all my professors skipped out on making us buy a textbook.

I was certain I wanted to be in the STEM field but the choice of major was unclear. I learned that all students had to take general education courses and that is exactly what I did my first year. All STEM majors require a strict background in science, physics, biology, and chemistry. I had poor experiences with advisors who misled me to take courses I did not need. I learned from this and took it upon myself to research and inform myself about course requirements for transferring. After all, all these forms can be found on the internet and they are the same ones that are used by advisors. I am glad I did this because I felt I had more control over the classes I took and I gained valuable knowledge to help my peers and younger family members. I looked at my options and chose what to learn about rather than have someone choose for me and the result was the enjoyment of my undergraduate education.

Another helpful thing I did was to define my purpose for being at the community college: I wanted to take my general education requirements as quickly as possible so that I could transfer and earn my Bachelor’s degree. Everyone is different, and it is okay to take 2 or 3 classes at a time if you are unsure of what you want to do, but always head in a direction. Do not just wander around looking towards the sky for answers. Just do something, work towards a certificate and try it out. If you do not like it, switching is one of the easiest things to do. I went through five different areas of study before choosing my major, and it wasn’t until I transferred that I chose mine. I wanted to get out of the community college system as quickly as possible because many people get stuck here and spend over six years trying to choose something. No matter where you go to university they all require general education and the entirety of this is available at the community college.

The transfer process involves applications, writing prompts, and deadlines. It is of utmost importance to keep up with the deadlines. In California there are no limits on the schools you can apply to as an undocumented student. More than ever, scholarships and different organizations are offering opportunities to us. The fact that there are few of us in higher education means there are opportunities out there for us all. My advice in transferring is truly finding out where the help is. Some universities are more involved with Dreamers, so they offer more help. Help is available from outside sources as well, like our community, family, parents, and/or employers. We cannot get caught up with the idea of leaving home like our citizen peers because we are not receiving the same financial help as them. We must be extremely honest with ourselves and realize how much help we may or may not have at home. Be smart, it does not matter whether you have your education while living with your parents because the things you do will pave the way to leave them with full confidence you can succeed and help them financially. And if you do leave, understand you will work hard just to make ends meet. It is possible though. Currently I work three different jobs to stay afloat, am a full-time student, and am Vice President of Border Angels (as an organization we advocate for immigrants’ rights around the San Diego County). If you want to succeed you must understand there are sacrifices that must be made. You must sacrifice the person you are now for the person that you want to become. Whether it is skipping out on a few nights out, working two jobs, or sleeping 4-5 hours per night, we sacrifice who we are now for our future self.

I chose my transfer university based on the courses I had. I compiled a list and chose the major that met most of my courses. I advise you to have a list of potential schools you want to attend. Look at the programs and areas of study they have available and narrow down your list based on your requirements. Do not choose a school based on a major because often you have not taken an upper division course focused on the major. Instead I would advise you to choose a university based on the programs that are available. Unless you are 200% sure you will not change your major, choose a school that offers the highest number of programs/majors that interest you. This way you will not be afraid of changing your major once you arrive at the university. Look at the resources for undocumented students. You can do this by phone or in person. Call them and find out!

Good luck on your journey, everything in this world is possible. Remember, we were given a hand that we must play wisely. When you want success as much as you want to breathe, only then do you really want it. Be smart about the decisions you make, time is always ticking so move and do something, anything that you desire, and that will have a positive impact in your life or the ones around you. Do good and be aware that good people are not always recognized. Let’s be undocumented and proud of who we are and will become.


Many thanks to Elspeth Michaels for her logo design for the Navigating Higher Education Opportunity Series. To see more of her work, check out her website here.

With support from UndocuScholars at the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education at UCLA, the Navigating Higher Education Opportunities Series commissions undocumented students and young adults to write blog posts with helpful advice and information about applying to and navigating college as an undocumented student. Please follow UndocuScholars’ social media on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to learn about their latest projects. And stay tuned for our second series with UndocuScholars, Spotlight Series on College Presidents!

Don’t forget to visit our website http://www.MyUndocumentedLife.org from your computer (not just mobile phone) so you can have access to the wide range of resources we provide. Be sure to subscribe (it’s free) for up-to-date information and resources for undocumented immigrants. You can subscribe by entering your e-mail address on this form.


Salvador is a Mexican, undocumented, undergraduate student in the CSU system, majoring in biotechnology with the short-term goal of earning his Bachelor’s degree May 2019. He is currently doing research in a plant biology laboratory and with the Undocu-Research project. He is also President of Border Angels at his campus and Outreach Executive with S.A.C.N.A.S in an effort to advocate, encourage, and empower minority groups to overcome personal and educational obstacles in order to accomplish their goals. He believes people must sacrifice who they are today for the person they want to be in the future because everyone has 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week, but some people aren’t paying attention where they allocate their time.



Categories: Applying to College, Life After High School, Navigating College

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