Afterthoughts of an Undocumented Graduate Student


While drafting some ideas for this post I struggled to think about what advice I could possibly share without sounding too pessimistic or possibly discouraging undocumented students that are interested in applying to graduate school. I tried very hard to come up with some nice and happy moments, but the truth is there are some things I wish I would have done differently. Don’t get me wrong, graduate school is not the worst place to be and there are definitely some happy moments, but I also don’t want to romanticize this experience. So, I finally settled on two main afterthoughts because these realizations only came to me after being in graduate school and after enduring the process of applying to graduate school.

  1. I am tired. Going from high school to college and to graduate school, without breaks in between, is exhausting and a bit boring. So please, consider the possibility of a gap year or two.
  2. Just because you are undocumented does not mean that you only have to do work about undocumented communities.

Let me expand on these thoughts. First, I knew I was tired when I was applying to graduate school. I didn’t share these feelings with anyone, and I wish I had. As undocumented students, some of us may find schools and universities as safe spaces, or rather safety nets. If we’re lucky enough we can get financial aid and health insurance just by being in school. It sounds easy enough and you get some of your most basic needs covered. Of course, it’s not that easy and being in school for twenty or more years is truly exhausting. At some point you may begin to feel trapped, at least I did. So, when it was time to think about what to do after graduating college, I felt I had no other choice but to keep being in school. It seemed like the most logical and safest choice, especially amid the rescinding of DACA. Looking back now, I think a gap year would have been extremely helpful. Although it would have been terrifying to leave the one place I felt I had some sort of protection, I also think it would have been revitalizing.

For these reasons, I encourage undocumented students to not underestimate the value of taking a gap year and leaving the university to explore yourself and your interests further. This may seem difficult to do because the gap year experience is not quite presented as a possibility for undocumented students. There are now various resources detailing in depth how undocumented students can apply to graduate school and what resources and steps they can take. However, I don’t feel that the same could be said about gap year opportunities for undocumented students. Don’t let this discourage you. My mistake was not asking because I didn’t think it was an option. Ask your advisors, faculty, counselors, etc. to help you plan out what a gap year could look like. If you are beginning to feel the weight and burnout of being in school, consider the possibility of a gap year. I still don’t know what a gap year would have looked like for me and other undocumented students who cannot travel or easily acquire funding, but one of the things I would have liked to explore is community building. The university does not reward you for working with community and oftentimes it will be difficult and exhausting to balance academic demands with commitments to community work. In short, take the time to do something fun and fulfilling that you might not be able to do once you are in graduate school, take the time to reflect and explore your options. Make sure that your decision to go to graduate school is your own and not a last resort.

Secondly, although it seems I regret my decision to go to graduate school, I have actually enjoyed my time here. I am still tired, but I am also meeting people and finding spaces that fill my heart and make the experience worthwhile, and I think part of this has to do with the fact that I am able to study what I want to study. In other words, I have not felt as if I can only research specific topics in order to be heard and validated. I have a space and support system that encourages me to figure out my own interests but also lets me change my mind. When applying to PhD programs, I was open about my status as a DACA recipient and the project I described in my statement of purpose was about Central American students in higher education, some of whom could be undocumented, but I was not set out to explicitly explore that aspect of their experience. Two years later, I have decided that I do want to explore some aspect of these experiences. This change in mind, however, was a product of several conversations with myself and a group of people that I trusted, understood my position to an extent, and offered unconditional support. What I hope I am communicating with this brief story of my research trajectory is that just because you are undocumented does not mean you have to only do research about undocumented communities. Your experiences and positionality as an undocumented immigrant would bring a crucial and needed perspective to research about undocumented communities but you are not confined to only doing that type of work. At times people may expect, assume, and push you to do that but find the people who will support your work and its trajectory. If later on you decide to do work on undocumented communities, then like my previous piece of advice, make sure that it was your decision and not one imposed on you. You will have a much more rewarding experience doing the work you want to do. As undocumented immigrants we are constrained by many things, and our decisions may not feel like our own at times, but it is important to recognize our agency and our ability to make the worlds we want.

Katy is currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include challenging the homogenization of Latina/o/x student experiences by highlighting the lived academic realities of Central American students. In addition, she examines the complex ways in which Queer Undocumented parents create and navigate family.


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

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