I have known I wanted to be an academic ever since I started college, but the dream had never felt so real – or so unreachable – as when I visited Columbia University during the summer prior to my senior year. Walking the halls of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), I imagined myself as part of the suit-and-tie students discussing ideas with peers and professors, thinking about what my first book would be. It was a romantic sight, soon mired by the albatross I had carried around my neck ever since arriving to the U.S. in 2010: I was undocumented. My mind wandered back to the anxiety I felt during my senior year of high school, to the long nights desperately looking for help and despairing over acceptance letters I was forced to turn down due to the lack of institutional funding. I was lucky enough to get a full ride at a wonderful Historically Black College – Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina – where my dreams went from being a literary scholar to a political scientist, and where I found a community that fostered my intellectual curiosity. Still, I cringed at the obstacles ahead and resigned myself to thinking that maybe I’d be better off giving up my academic dreams.
I look back on that Columbia visit as a 3rd year Ph.D. student at Yale University’s Political Science Department, where I conduct research on the politics of the immigration system. For the past two years, I have walked the hallways of an Ivy League institution, discussing ideas with colleagues, professors, and students. I have recently started the process of book-writing by outlining my prospectus; this, of course, has been a far less romantic process than I imagined, although that’s a topic for another time. Instead, what concerns me today is giving advice to students who are in the same position I was in three years ago. What is it that I wish someone told me when I was applying to graduate school? How is it that I got into Yale, and what would I have done differently?
Before going on full-advice mode, I’d like to mention some things. I do not consider myself a “Dreamer” for personal and political reasons. First, I did not qualify for DACA and thus had to navigate the graduate application process without a work permit and without any pretense of short-term legalization. I am a full-fledged undocumented student, and this fact still pervades every decision I make even in graduate school. I also believe the Dreamer narrative has done a good deal of psychological harm to students who for structural reasons were not able to go to college or finish high school. I could be a stereotypical academic and throw some readings your way (i.e. Roberto Gonzales’ Lives in Limbo), but honestly, we all know someone in our community whose brilliance and hard work was not enough to get them to where they wanted to be because the system is utterly broken. Therefore, I consider myself as undocumented as any other member in my community while also remaining cognizant of my privilege as a cisgender, able-bodied male at an institution that perpetuates harmful hierarchies.
I don’t want to imply that grad school should be everyone’s dream or that it should be given a higher regard over any other career path. Graduate school was MY dream because I have always been attracted to the academic way of life, even as I switched my interests from literature to political science. You mean I can get paid to read, write, and teach? Sign me up. Still, that’s not everyone’s dream, so readers should think about their own interests and future before studying for the GRE. If anything, being undocumented rushed my decision to enter graduate school because I knew that without a work permit, there wasn’t a feasible way for me to get work experience. I thought, why not just apply for graduate school right out of undergrad if I knew I would do it anyway? Whether the advice I give applies to you is something that you will have to figure out by looking at personal choices, circumstances, and preferences.
Without further ado, here are some pieces of advice I learned through my own painful but ultimately rewarding experience applying to Ph.D. programs as an undocumented student.
1. Be realistic, without forgetting your goals.
Graduate school is radically different from undergraduate education in that it is a mix of study, work, and independent research. While you will most likely take classes during your early years, the bulk of your time in graduate school will be spent teaching, advising students, and most importantly, creating new knowledge through research. Therefore, the most crucial part of your choice is finding an academic department that
A) Has faculty members specializing in what you want to study.
B) Can provide a good funding package (most Ph.D. programs are fully-funded, while M.A. programs vary widely).
C) You feel comfortable in.
I should say that when I started applying, I DID NOT have this list or knew much about the process. Instead, I began collecting program names like a squirrel storing nuts during winter. Perhaps the only point I heeded was (B), as it was clear to me that I had not money whatsoever to pay for graduate education. My original list had fifteen programs, ranging from small schools like the University of Rochester to heavyweights like UT Austin. Soon, I realized I was not eligible to receive any funding from public institutions since I was a resident of North Carolina, a state that still charges out-of-state tuition to undocumented students and does not offer financial aid to non-citizens. This fact ruled out ALL public universities, leaving me to contemplate exclusively private institutions – in other words, chao, UCLA.
My second list included a plethora of small private institutions that barely fit what I wanted from a program. Funding was uncertain in some of these, and most importantly, their research strengths and faculty members barely fit what I wanted to study. Still, I began working on the applications because I thought I had to settle with crumbs given my immigration status. Thankfully, my undergraduate advisers were wise enough to have a “come to Jesus” talk with me, pointing out that many of the country’s top private institutions had all I wanted from a program and could take me in.
I was terrified. My insecurities initially kept me from looking into Ivy League programs since I knew from browsing their online “Current Graduate Students” tabs that virtually all students came from other Ivy Leagues or from professional policy backgrounds. Still, my advisers knew best. After contacting many school officials, I narrowed down my list to four institutions: Duke University, the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Yale University. Yikes.
We as undocumented students are used to settling down, and I don’t blame us for it. While undocumented students at Ivy League institutions make the headlines, the reality is that most of us attend small private colleges willing to take us in and provide good funding packages. This is not a tragedy, as one’s college career is not determined by the places we go to or by the faculty members that advise us. In graduate school, the place and the people matter way more. While I was realistic in creating a list of schools I could apply to, I was motivated by my mentors not to stop centering the research work that ultimately drove my decision.
This is a difficult balancing act. The application to Rochester’s political science program looked way less intimidating than the application for Yale’s, but the latter was a much better fit for my research interests than the former. Through the process I discovered that applying to a small group of well-fitting institutions was much better and more practical than spreading oneself thin by applying to multiple institutions. Eventually, I got accepted into the University of Chicago and Yale University, and it was in the latter that I found more supportive faculty, a better funding package, and a more comfortable environment. To get to that place, however, I first had to close my eyes and jump off the cliff. Worst that could happen (and that indeed happened) was having the institutions say “no.”
2. E-mail Everyone
I mean it, EVERYONE. Email professors, graduate students, registrars, offices of affirmative action, and graduate school administrators, EVERYONE. Looking back at my application process, I can tell you that most of my time was spent not on my personal statement – though I did spend days working on it – or studying for the GRE. Most of my time was spent calling and emailing school administrators to find out whether their program took undocumented students and the conditions under which they could do so.
Graduate programs are atomized administrative units within institutions, which means that they might have their own admissions processes or fall within the jurisdiction of a specific part of the university, such a Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Therefore, even if the institution has one official who knows the specifics of admitting undocumented students, odds are that some of the guidelines may not apply to a program or that they will be complicated by some of the requirements. Within most institutions, you want to email the person in charge of graduate admissions. If the university has an affirmative action office, I totally recommend getting in contact with them, because they can advocate for you on the inside and connect you with informational resources.
In some cases, you may want to email someone directly within your program of choice, such as the department chair or the director of graduate studies. In the case of my program at Yale, the website asked explicitly not to email the director of graduate studies for questions on admissions. Upon reading this, I naturally decided to ignore it and email the professor in question, who turned out to be my most reliable ally throughout the admissions process. As a fun fact, this same faculty member is my current advisor. Don’t you love happy endings?
As it is the case for all graduate students, email faculty members and students who work on your same research area with questions. Worst comes to worst, they will not respond. In the best of cases, you may be gaining an ally on the inside to help you navigate the process.
3. Be Transparent
Listen, my idea of a nice Sunday afternoon is most definitely not writing five emails where I explain to people how come I’ve got no papers. Sadly, that’s how I spent my time when I was applying to graduate school. One of the first instincts that many students have when applying to these institutions is to pretend that they are citizens and then “see what happens down the line.” If you want to lose your time working on useless applications, be my guest. My advice is to be transparent from the get-go and let administrators know that you are undocumented (or DACAmented) and elaborate on what this means.
Sadly, you will have to do a fair deal of explaining your legal status to people. In my case, a lot of people assumed that being an undocumented immigrant student automatically meant I had DACA, so I learned to be very explicit about my status, saying something along the lines of “I’m an undocumented student without a work permit who didn’t qualify for DACA relief.” This was uncomfortable and felt all-too invasive, but I had to do it, so programs knew that they would have to find ways to help me get teaching experience or research funds. If you have DACA, you may have to do the opposite, explaining to programs that you in fact have a work permit and are able to legally perform the same work duties as any other grad student.
You obviously want to be selective on who you tell this to. A graduate student may not have any clue of what their program’s policy is regarding undocumented students, but the chair probably will (or at least they need to do their research). To save you time, I’d advise having an email template that you modify according to your specific question and to the identity of the recipient. Also, do not let your immigration status eclipse the fact that you’re an applicant like any other, neither in your own eyes nor in the eyes of the people you’re getting help from. Just as you have questions regarding your status, you may also have questions about funding packages, academic requirements, or GRE dates. Don’t forget to also ask these questions. It’s tough, I know, but the more information you have, the better prepared you’ll be to make a decision that will shape the next 3-6 years of your life.
4. Be Ready to Deal with People’s BS
If you’ve made it this far in life as an undocumented immigrant, you know that people can be problematic. Nay, outright racist. It saddens me to say that you’ll have to be ready to deal with people’s ignorance and sometimes, even with open animosity. One time I inquired about admissions with a university in the West Coast (whose name I am omitting) that told me they did not accept undocumented students. The thing is, they were so polite and concise in the tone of their email that I barely got mad at the message. A couple of days prior, I emailed the registrar of another program asking if they would accept me. Her reply? An unformatted response simply saying, “We don’t take in illegals.”
Naturally, I forwarded her response to the Director of Affirmative Action, who found out that the program did take in undocumented students and waived my application fee. Later I also heard that said registrar was fired for racist comments directed towards other students; another happy ending! I don’t want you to believe that people like that registrar will be the norm. Most people I talked to were incredibly polite and professional even when they bore bad news. Most often, negative reactions will come in the form of ignorance about what “undocumented” is or surprise at the fact that an undocumented person is even applying to a graduate program. On the flip side – if there is a flip side – administrators’ reactions to your questions are a good way to gauge whether the school has a welcoming environment in the first place. Every administrator I talked to at Yale, from my DGS-turned-advisor to the graduate admissions coordinator, was incredibly polite and helpful. While I don’t mean to say that Yale is perfect on issues of race – that’s yet another post – administrators were at the very least open and willing to work with me at every step of the way.
5. Ask for Help – Lots of It
Here’s a list of some of the people who helped me apply to graduate school
- My then-girlfriend formatted my resume.
- My high school English teacher edited my statement of purpose.
- The director of my undergrad institution’s social studies department got me a GRE waiver.
- My undergrad advisor helped me keep a tally of schools I could apply to.
The list goes on and on. Regardless of one’s documentation status, the graduate application process can be overwhelming. Add to it the stress that comes with being undocumented, and you have a recipe for procrastination, anxiety, and caffeine overdoses. What I found most helpful throughout the process was acknowledging my own limitations and reaching out to mentors, friends, and classmates for help. Some ways people can help are clear. Let people know ahead of time that you’ll be asking them to write a letter of recommendation and give them clear guidelines to do it. Work on your statement of purpose from the moment you know you will apply to schools and have your most grammar-obsessed friend read over it.
There are other more unexpected ways in which people can help you. When I was applying to the University of Chicago, for example, one of my undergrad professors helped me get in contact with a faculty member. Since my university’s financial aid office was unable to give me a GRE waiver, the social studies chair helped me secure an institutionally-funded waiver, allowing me to take the expensive exam twice.
At this point, it is almost cliché to remind people that self-care is important, but that’s a lesson that you’ll need to remember by heart. It is necessary to ask that friends and family members check on your progress and on your personal welfare. Even having someone work around you while you outline your statement of purpose is a way not to let stress keep you from doing otherwise simple tasks.
This is a lesson that you’ll want to carry into your graduate education.
As I mentioned during the introduction of this piece, it is uncommon for undocumented students to start and finish higher education. It is even more uncommon to see us go onto post-secondary programs. Throughout it all, you want to create a community of people who can empathize with your struggles and help you with all the program-specific things you will need to deal with, such as grants, requirements, and publications.
6. You make the road by walking
Remember how I said graduate programs will have little to no experience dealing with undocumented students? Odds are, you will be the first undocumented person applying to their program. Ever. I can almost assure you that the moment you ask an administrator what their policy is regarding undocumented students, they’ll scramble to put one together because they just don’t have it. It sucks that in this day and age, programs are so comfortable admitting nothing but legacies and policy professionals that they do not have policies inclusive of historically marginalized communities. However, I’m here to tell you how to navigate the system, not all the ways it is fucked up (is anyone keeping tally of all the posts I must write next?)
The fact that a program may not have a specific policy regarding undocumented students is not necessarily a bad thing if you’re willing to take the initiative. Public universities tend to have clearer policies than do private ones, so it is with the latter that you may have more leeway in designing your entry terms. To do this, you should really refer to all the previous steps: you’ll have to e-mail people, you’ll have to undocu-splain your status, and you’ll have to be persistent.
Thus far I have been lucky enough to meet other undocumented students in post-graduate education, but the atomization of post-graduate programs makes it so that every person I have met has had a different experience. A specific piece of advice I can give is finding out if the institution you’re applying to has admitted undocumented students in other programs or parts of the university. In the case of Yale, for example, my departmental staff got in contact with administrators at the Yale School of Divinity, who had previously admitted undocumented students, as a way of figuring out the logistics and making them work in line with my program’s requirements. You also want to find out whether the university has individuals that can be helpful in other offices, such as in undergraduate admissions or even international student affairs (seriously, you’ll be surprised). Even an ally faculty member might be a good place to start.
Like the previous piece of advice, you’ll want to carry this one well into your graduate education. While I’m not the only undocumented student doing post-grad work at Yale, I am the only one in the history of the political science program. This means that as much as I relate to my peers’ experiences in other departments, I have learned to set goals and processes in line with nothing but my goals, requirements, and capacities. The process of “making the road by walking” can be an uphill battle, but I can assure you that the little triumphs, such as the end of comprehensive exams, a good conversation with your advisor, or a successful conference paper, make it all worth it.
7. Your experience matters
My last piece of advice is not logistical, but rather more personal. The graduate application process is one of the most difficult exercises on self-esteem and self-worth I’ve ever engaged in. Nothing was more toxic for me than going through the webpages with bios of current and past graduate students and comparing myself to them. Here were people who came from all around the world, who before getting to their doctoral programs had gotten Masters’ degrees from places like Harvard, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics. How could I, an undocumented, low-income, first-gen, small-college grad compete and co-exist with people who spent their summers at the United Nations?
Here’s my short answer: I knew stuff they didn’t know. I spent all my undergraduate career organizing with communities persecuted by the state, and for all the book and policy knowledge I missed out on by not having access to Ivy League institutions, international organizations, or political high circles, I knew a face of politics that most of them simply didn’t. My experience had not given me an imposing title to write down on my resume, but it had put me in contact with the uglier side of the state and had forced me to acquire a human sensibility in approaching political issues. I had as much a claim to the title “political scientist” as anyone who had done an internship at the European Union.
I’m happy to say that it gets better. Most of the people who intimidated me are now close friends, and my best moments in graduate school have come from exchanging notes on the bottom-up and the top-down visions of politics with these peers. Furthermore, you should keep in mind that once you get to graduate school, you’ll have time to get fancy certificates, degrees, and trainings. There’ll be time to catch up on areas you couldn’t get training on because your undergraduate institution didn’t have the resources for it (oh, the joy of learning statistics), and you’ll learn to enunciate your ideas using the terms that “experts” use (not that it will make your ideas any more valid).
What counts most is what you have right now. All the struggles you’ve gone through have shaped who you are and the desire to study whatever you want to study. Use it. Use the impetus you got from being undocumented, and don’t be afraid to be straightforward with the place you’re coming from.
“I want to go into educational studies because I’ve seen my community denied education”
“I want to go to med school because there’s no doctors in low-income communities”
“I want to study political science because I believe states are fundamentally immoral and I want to figure how they work the same way a physician studies a disease” (or is that just me?)
Your experience is all you have, and if an institution cannot see its worth, that’s probably an institution you wouldn’t have been comfortable in anyway. Yes, it is true that I am an undocumented, low-income, first-gen, small-college graduate. And the fact that I’ve made it to where I am despite and because of all these things only makes me more capable of handling whatever else will come my way.
If you’re an undocumented person about to apply to graduate school and you’re reading this, I know you’re scared, and my advice may only have added to the feeling. First, take a breath and remember to drink water. Second, know that you have a community in this website and around the country that is willing and able to help you out. Remember that the obstacles ahead of you are not a consequence of any personal fault, but rather the result of a system built around exclusion. We were never meant to be part of these institutions, yet we’re doing it. That itself is a marvelous victory, and it is now our duty to help each other and the communities that have pushed us forward.
Good luck with everything!
This 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.
Ramon is a Ph.D. student at Yale University’s Political Science Department and an undocumented grassroots organizer. His research focuses on the politics of the American immigration regime and on the forms of resistance employed by communities illegalized by it. He also writes about the use of ethnographic methods within the study of politics.
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