Taking Steps to Crack Open the Door to Graduate School: Insights from an UnDACAmented Graduate Scholar



Through my research as a graduate student, I found a statistic suggesting that out of every 100 undocumented elementary Latinx students, less than one will achieve a master’s degree. This statistic is alarming. It suggests the odds are against undocumented students who go on to graduate school. Nevertheless, I encourage undocumented students to follow their graduate school dreams. It gets rough at times, but it is possible.

At the age of 34, I began my graduate school education at a California State University. Like many, I was overjoyed the graduate program folks chose me for the entering cohort. While there are different working parts to applying for graduate school such as writing a personal statement, here I will focus on two factors that both shaped and prepared me for graduate school. While some people may view these factors as common sense, that was not the case for me as an undergraduate student. It is worth highlighting these factors and sharing how both prepared me to become confident about going to graduate school. My hope is that anyone reading this reflection gains insight into some things they can undertake (if not already acted on) to improve their chances of attending graduate school.

As an undergraduate student, I collaborated with two professors who were conducting qualitative research (ethnography) at the immigration court in our region. The opportunity to collaborate with these two professors came up in conversation during office hours. I recall one of the professors sharing with me that she and her colleague were doing an ethnography at an immigration court. She said there was an opening for a research assistant and explained what the position would entail: field work at an immigration court. Although I was hesitant to place myself anywhere near an immigration courtroom, since I am unDACAmented, I took the opportunity to participate. The professors had assured me it was a safe space.

It was my last semester as an undergraduate student when I began visiting the immigration court. That semester, my main goal was to complete my undergraduate degree. My focus was earning top grades and crossing the graduation finish line. At this time, obtaining hands-on experience under my belt was not a concern. However, by accepting to help out with the field work at the immigration court, I took the first step to building skills that would help me crack open the door to graduate school.

As a research assistant, I visited the immigration court at least once a week. In the courtroom, a public space, I took notes of whatever was taking place. At the conclusion of my visit, I took my observations home and put it all down on paper. Besides field work, I also met with the two professors throughout the semester. During our group meetings, we would talk about some of the themes that came up in my notes. During these meetings I was able to talk about my experience within the immigration court. Toward the end of the semester, I noticed that my confidence as a scholar had grown. I learned from some of the mistakes in the field and found ways to navigate and negotiate my presence in the courtroom. By then I was convinced that I could take those skills into graduate school to help me navigate whatever came my way.

While I gained hands on experience through the university, the surrounding community also added to this experience. Between late 2014 and early 2017, I created and facilitated a study group at a public library to help the undocumented community prepare to take a driver’s license writing test. California had just passed a law (Assembly Bill 60) that would allow undocumented people including myself to gain a driver’s license starting in 2015. To obtain a driver’s license under AB 60, people needed to complete both a written and a behind the wheel test. Since I was also interested in obtaining a driver’s license, I decided to create a study group. In those days, I was spending a great deal of time at the public library in the community. It was here that I noticed the library’s conference room was empty on Sunday afternoons. I talked to one of the librarians (a familiar face) about possibly starting a study group for driver’s licenses for Spanish speakers. I then shared the idea with the head librarian who approved the project. To spread awareness about the study group, I made a flyer inviting people to join me on Sunday afternoons. One of the librarians posted some of these flyers in the library. I, on the other hand, posted some of the flyers in laundromats’ around my neighborhood. Soon, with only handbooks, which I picked up at the Department of Motor Vehicles, I facilitated the first AB 60 study group.

My involvement with the AB 60 study group was an eye-opening experience. It represented the various discursive and theoretical social justice ideas that professors had exposed me to in the classroom, such as the importance of giving back to your community. This was reciprocal. For instance, the people I met in the study group provided me with valuable knowledge. One lesson was to check my assumptions. I had started the study group thinking everyone who attended could read. This was not the case. There was variation in the level of education within the room. Some people had gone to school. Others did not have this opportunity. Nonetheless, as a group with the same goal in hand, we negotiated this fact. I took this knowledge from the community into the graduate school classroom.

At school, I often talked about the AB 60 study group with people who I trusted. One professor told me one day she had seen the study group flyer at the library. Her comment was encouraging. It also made me reflect on the community effort I had undertaken to help me give back. Without knowing, I was involved in sociological practice; for me it was about helping in whatever way I could. I had taken some of the sociological knowledge my undergraduate professors had provided me and put it to work. In return, the community gifted me their knowledge. This knowledge helped me navigate graduate school especially when interacting with people in my cohort.

When it was time to apply for graduate school, I was able to turn to the two professors who I had worked with for letters of recommendation. They knew who I was and had seen some of my work. More importantly, due to my involvement with the immigration court project and the AB 60 study group, I felt more confident about the idea of graduate school.

I began this reflection with a statistic suggesting few undocumented Latinx students will achieve a graduate degree. We know some of the barriers undocumented students face: no federal financial aid or state financial aid (depending on the state). Some states block undocumented students from enrolling in universities. This reflection is an attempt to shed light on factors that pushed me toward graduate school. While I had attended a presentation about graduate school one of my undergraduate professors had given (the initial planting of the seed), it was not until I started collaborating with professors and with people out in my community that the seed sprouted. Through both field work and involvement in the AB 60 study group, I grew as a person and a scholar. This growth and the support of professors, family, and peers have allowed me to stay committed to getting a graduate degree. I encourage undocumented undergraduate students to seek such opportunities to supplement their educational goals.

downloadThis post is part of the series UndocuGrads: Navigating Graduate School as an Undocumented Student where undocumented graduate school students and alumni share tips and knowledge about navigating graduate school. Many thanks to UndocuScholars for making this series possible. As an extension of the UndocuScholars project launched in 2014 at UCLA, the ongoing efforts of UndocuScholars are to engage institutional agents, college and university students, scholars, and community advocacy partners to create and further build on sustainable and effective best practices for undocumented students in higher education.

And many thanks to Elspeth Michaels for her design of the image for the series. To see more of her work, check out her website here.

Jose is currently in a sociology master’s program at a California State University. His thesis is looking at the experiences of immigrant young adults involved in immigrant rights activism and/or advocacy under the Trump presidency. He will be completing his thesis in the Fall 2018 and plans to pursue a sociology doctorate degree in the near future. Jose is also currently involved with a community-based project exploring the experiences of undocumented high school students and their teachers, counselors, and staff.


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Categories: Applying to Grad School, Navigating Grad School, UndocuGrads: Stories of former and current undocumented grad students

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