Meet UndocuGrad Norma (Pursuing PhD in Clinical Psychology)

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For today’s UndocuGrad Spotlight, we are excited to feature Norma’s experience and advice. Norma is currently a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology and will graduate with an additional Masters in Theology. Norma M.A., arrived in the U.S. at the tender age of 5 years old and has been actively involved with the Latinx community and volunteered her time in the Latino/a Youth Leadership Conference for over a decade. In 2012, when DACA was implemented, she began working at an immigration non-profit. Together, these experiences cemented her desire to pursue Clinical Psychology as she witnessed the lack of mental health services available. In 2017, she joined the Dreamers Lawsuit against the current administration for unlawfully rescinding DACA. 

What motivated you to apply to grad school?

I applied to graduate school because it was the only way that I could become a psychologist. In my work with youth and parents going through the U-Visa/VAWA process, I realized how much of a need there was (and still is) for mental health services for our undocumented population.

All of my work has been in recognizing that what I am doing isn’t only for myself but for all of us. This has motivated my work to continue graduate school despite several obstacles and to be intentional about staying connected with the community. Therefore, I think that my biggest motivation comes from my family and my community.

What is your career goal? I want to be able to provide holistic mental health services to the undocumented community that focuses on adolescents and their families. This means that I would like to be a part of a community center where several services (e.g. legal, medical, community) are offered while I have my own practice. In my own practice, I want to have a model that is like a private practice where clients can pay what they can (i.e. low-cost services) with all the benefits of a private practice (e.g. no limited amount of sessions; no forced terminations) in order to provide the quality of care that our community deserves.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have encountered while pursuing grad school as an undocumented student?

I believe that until laws change, nationally and at the local level, the biggest challenge that we face is simple access to graduate school, primarily access to funding. Financial support has always been a concern for me every year. Apart from that, I have gone through different phases in graduate school that have been challenging. The first one was the culture shock that I experienced when I first arrived. I had thought that once I was in graduate school I would be the same as everyone else but I was sorely mistaken. The majority of my peers were White middle class evangelicals who, despite their well-meaning intentions, had no idea of what my background was like. So, I had to really fight a lot of assumptions and find ways to still connect. I think in that way it has been challenging and a learning experience for all of us. The other thing the happened was realizing that I could not have many expectations. Every year there was a new obstacle. So, I had to change my expectations. Lastly, it’s been about owning my story and my knowledge and learning how to challenge my professors, classmates, and other administrators when it comes to what is being taught and what narratives are being accepted. Many times I have had to speak up when certain theories or clinical interventions leave out my experiences and that of my community. Therefore, there are several stages through-out graduate school that will come and it’s important to build community and find people who are willing to fight for you in these academic spaces.

What is your advice to fellow undocumented folks who are thinking about applying to grad school?

1. Graduate school is a grueling process. I cannot imagine anyone really preparing me for it as an undocumented student. Therefore, you have to be absolutely sure that this is something that you want to pursue.
2. Don’t pursue graduate school in order to prove your worth. You’re already worthy. However, if graduate school will help you pursue your goals and help improve our community, then go for it.
3. Build relationships with people of all backgrounds. This has been my learning curve but also my saving grace. Yes, relationships with White middle class evangelicals is tough but they have also put their hands in the fire for me and supported me in so many ways. Additionally, building relationships with others has helped deepen my understanding of oppressive systems and how we are all impacted by it.

Lastly, remember that we are worthy regardless of the letters that go after our names. Once I was in graduate school I realized that I had bought into the narrative of being a “perfect immigrant.” Had I realized this sooner, I may have chosen a different path for my life. So I encourage everyone to reflect on their motivations for graduate school. If you pursue graduate school, take the step and build relationships.


Norma, M.A., arrived in the U.S. at the tender age of 5 years old and has been actively involved with the Latinx community and volunteered her time in the Latino/a Youth Leadership Conference for over a decade. In 2012, when DACA was implemented, she began working at an immigration non-profit. Together, these experiences cemented her desire to pursue Clinical Psychology as she witnessed the lack of mental health services available. In 2017, she joined the Dreamers Lawsuit against the current administration for unlawfully rescinding DACA. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology and will graduate with an additional Masters in Theology. @Norma_LRM


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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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