Navigating Higher Education Opportunities Series #3: Unexpected Challenges as an Undocumented Student


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I like to just jump into things: I am a 21 year old undocumented female third-year college student majoring in Sociology. I am not quite sure of career goals yet but I am into working with underrepresented undocumented immigrant low income students, I am into social justice in general and also like research. I also really like art, singing, drawing and writing.

In general, I would say my university campus is accepting of undocumented students, immigrant students, students of color and there are a couple of student-led support groups available for undocumented students. But I would also say that the campus still has some work to do in terms of creating more scholarships and grants specifically for undocumented students, especially when it comes to supporting undocumented students that struggle with issues on top of being undocumented that interfere with their education, which brings me to my next point…

I used to be homeless and undocumented for the majority of my freshman college year. I struggled with feelings of not being good enough because of being from a low socioeconomic status, experiencing homelessness in college, being undocumented and a first generation college student all at the same time. I lived at “home,” rent-free only for the first year of college. I say “home” because it consisted of my moving from motel to motel every three weeks with my parents and younger siblings and couch surfing in between moving from motel to motel because my family and I had no official place to call home. My dad was suffering a job loss and alcoholism and my mom did not start working until this chapter of our lives because she didn’t need to before, and she was scared of getting caught working using a fake social security number. I was though still lucky they didn’t force me to pay any bills my freshman year.

However, this meant that I was so busy working and babysitting my younger siblings (this was the only way I was allowed to live at home rent free for the first year). This meant that I had no time to socialize if I wanted to keep my grades up as most of my free time was spent studying or working on assignments. The second semester of my freshman year, my family and I finally got an apartment, only to have my dad get taken away by police and whisked to a detention center the summer following my freshman year due to a DUI. This meant we were risking homelessness again, and so my mom, siblings and I got out of our apartment before the lease was up and didn’t pay our full share of the rent. My mom then went to go live in a trailer with my brother and sister, at her sister’s house, and I went to go rent a room I found on Craigslist with the help of a counselor at school.

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Photo credit: Antonio R. Villarosa

The most important thing I have to say about this is that I get frustrated when people don’t seem to understand my specific struggles, they tell me things I already know, and still can’t comprehend why I’m struggling. For example, when I mention I’m struggling to pay for college, I get asked if I have a have a job and asked if I applied for the CA Dream Act. I say yes but constantly have to explain that the California Dream Act only covers tuition, and not fees. And that even with a part time job that pays $11 an hour it’s quite hard to pay for fees, books, rent, transportation, food, etc and that I can’t live at home rent free because of the situation I mentioned above. My dad has been temporarily released at the moment, but he just started working again, lives in a trailer and can barely afford his rent. My mom is also still extremely low income and cannot afford to help me financially. My parents are also now separated and I have younger siblings who have priority over me, which leaves me to fend for myself.

But that’s not all. At school, I’ve had experiences with teachers who had no idea about undocumented students. When I was a freshman, I had a speech class and I choose to write one of my speeches about undocumented students and had the teacher in the class say, “what do you mean undocumented students… you mean they’re here illegally? How are they allowed to be here?” And though these might seem like innocent questions, the tone in which she asked them suggested to me that she was racist. And I almost had second thoughts about doing the speech, but I figured this was my chance to speak up and talk about something that was important to me, so I went ahead and still did my speech, which to my surprise got a really supportive response by the students in that class.

However, I was quite disappointed that other social justice based centers on campus (not specifically about undocumented students) did not give enough attention to the news on DACA after September 5th , a time when much of the undocumented student community was feeling anxious,  hopeless and needed extra support. Some of these centers did not make an event or have discussions about the issue due to fear of being political or taking sides, which makes no sense to me considering they are social justice centers and should do everything they can to support underrepresented students. After the news, I decided to try to graduate faster (in four years instead of five) due to the rescinding of DACA, not being able to renew at the time, and fear of not being able to receive funding for a 5th year and pay for tuition.

In terms of support, I would say bonding with other undocumented students makes me feel better and worse: better because I can talk to someone who gets it, worse because it reminds me of the situation both of us are in and angry that the situation needs to exist at all.

I have been able to stay in college thanks to the support of counselors, old high school and middle school teachers, a mentor and my current boyfriend and his parents. And despite all my struggles, I have maintained a high GPA up to this point- 2nd semester of my junior/3rd year, which I am deeply proud of.

In conclusion, my advice to undocumented students is this : yes, be grateful for the help we do get with the CA Dream Act and private scholarships but we also need to demand more. We need to demand more because there is not enough help for homeless undocumented students, students who can’t live at home rent free, undocumented college students who are parents or caretakers for their family members, LGBTQIA undocumented students, etc. There’s also not enough help for undocumented students who aren’t considered “exceptional” ( i.e 4.0 GPA, works multiple jobs and is student club president); ”average” undocumented students also matter.

For campuses, I would say to provide undocumented students with tangible resources such as money for school/personal expenses outside of tuition. I would also say that schools who do not have a Dream Center really need to give it their all to push for one. Schools need to recognize and prioritize employing undocumented students, especially since they are already given the short end of the stick when it comes to scholarships and financial aid. For those without DACA, I would specifically say provide volunteering opportunities at school and provide stipends for undocumented students for their volunteer work and make this exclusive to undocumented students who cannot apply or qualify for DACA. And in terms of scholarships I would say provide scholarships open to undocumented students, as well as scholarships exclusively  for undocumented students and in certain majors.

It’s time to stop feeding into the excuses certain schools give us about the lack of opportunities and funding for us. We are valuable and deserve so much more than what we are being given now.

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 FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to learn about their latest projects. And stay tuned for our second series with UndocuScholars, Spotlight Series on College Presidents!

Rosalie is a DACA recipient, undergrad student, and currently in her third year of college pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology. She is 21 years old, went to a 4 year university straight out of high school and felt compelled to write this piece because she felt very misguided in her pursuit of a higher education, wishing that someone had been more straightforward and really told her what lay ahead for her aa a first generation undocumented college student versus her first generation college documented counterparts. She writes this piece not to put fear in future undocumented college students nor to discourage them from going straight to a four year university, but to let students know some of the unique obstacles they will encounter that no one else will talk about, especially students who came from programs specifically designed to help first generation documented college students, such as AVID (a program that Rosalie was in).


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