“The Road to College for an Undocumented Student”: Reflections about Navigating the Educational System from Josselyn


Living in a country with limited educational opportunities is something that no parent wants for their children, at least that is not what my parents wanted for my brother and me. When my parents made the difficult decision to migrate to the United States in 2006, they had in mind that they wanted a better life for their children and our family, and hoped that we could achieve the American Dream. Knowing that they had to come with nothing, and that there were many risks involved, they still chose to migrate in order for my brother and I to access better educational and employment opportunities. The drive and motivation that keeps pushing me toward academic success are my parents. This drive and motivation have helped me, an undocumented immigrant who became a DACA recipient, navigate the educational system.

When my family migrated to the United States, we first settled in Providence, Rhode Island. I was five years old at the time. My parents enrolled me in pre-kindergarten so that I would not get behind in school. I have vague memories of that time, but one thing I do remember was feeling out of place. I did not speak English and I could not understand it either because Spanish is my first language. I remember feelings of embarrassment and shyness because other kids spoke English and I could not understand them. A few months later, my parents decided to move to Los Angeles, California because immigration officers had come to the house where we were living asking questions about us. It became too risky to stay and hide in a basement so my parents knew it was time to relocate. Once my family settled in LA, my mom wanted to enroll me in school. She gathered information and was told that I would need to take an exam to determine what grade I would be placed in. I was placed in kindergarten and started school shortly after. Entering school, I still had a strong accent, knew fewer words than other kids, and had difficulty making friends because of the language barriers. Although I was still learning, my parents’ guidance and discipline helped me advance in school. During my time in elementary school, I had very little knowledge about my family’s legal status, yet alone my own. I did not know what it meant to not have “papers”, or the limits that I would encounter as an undocumented immigrant.

In middle school, I started to realize what my legal status really meant. I learned that I was technically not allowed to be in the U.S. as I was not born here. I became aware of the fact that I could not travel anywhere, that my parents and I could be victims of deportation, and that my younger brother, a U.S. citizen, would have no one to look after him if that were to ever happen. Due to this overwhelming fear of deportation, my mom and I would take the bus everywhere because AB 60, a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license did not exist yet, and we could not risk being pulled over by the police without a license. At school, I grew more embarrassed about my legal status. Whenever my friends would ask me where I was from I would say “I’m from here”, or I would ask if they meant what my ethnicity was and then I would say, “I’m Guatemalan”, but I would never share that I was born in Guatemala. I naturally shied away from sharing my legal status because I was aware of the stigma surrounding undocumented immigrants (e.g., that we are “bad” people, that we do not belong here, or that we’re “harming” American society). I was afraid my friends would make fun of me or would look at me differently, and I was afraid of what they could do with that information. I wanted to keep my family and myself safe so I would let everyone assume I was born in the United States. I also started to fit in; my accent was gone, and I learned how to look “American”. I thought if I could assimilate into American society, I would be able to become a citizen.

In high school I realized that assimilating was not the solution. At 14 years old, worry became a constant feeling I experienced. At the time, my parents and I were unaware that initiatives such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program or AB 540, a bill established to exempt students from paying nonresident tuition in California, existed to help undocumented students. Growing up, our family experienced a lack of legal support and advice. We did not know how or where to find legal advice, and we did not trust people with our personal information because of the fear that we would get deported. We were unsure of whether immigration services could collaborate and share information with ICE. We had heard stories on the news about people who got deported for doing simple everyday tasks and we were not willing to take a risk. My schools also lacked emotional and educational resources for undocumented students and families. I would be surrounded by many peers, yet I felt so alone because I thought I was the only one who was undocumented. Therefore, my first year in high school was emotionally draining.

Without knowledge of immigration policies such as DACA and AB 540, I constantly wondered how I was going to be able to afford college with the low paying jobs my parents had, and whether I could even apply to college in the first place. I spent a great amount of time thinking about what my future would look like considering I was an undocumented immigrant. I wanted to obtain a career so that I could repay my parents for everything they had done for me, but deep down I knew there was a chance I was not going to achieve that. My friends would talk about their future educational aspirations but I knew that there was a possibility that my future dreams could be taken away from me for the simple fact that I was not born in the United States. I became discouraged, especially with the lack of resources, but I did not let that stop me from excelling in school. A bill that gave me hope when I was feeling discouraged was California’s Assembly Bill 60, that allowed my parents to obtain their driver’s license. I felt safer knowing they had some form of identification, and I felt hopeful of what the future could hold for students like me..

In 2016, my sophomore year in high school, my parents and I learned about DACA through a family member that had seen it on the news. Under DACA, I would be able to obtain protection from deportation, social security, and a work permit. Immediately, our family decided to look further into this policy and seek legal advice. At this point, we had decided to put our fear aside in hopes of achieving better outcomes. Through the help of family members, we were able to find an organization, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, that provided us with legal information and guided us through the process. We learned that I would need copies of school records, such as my transcripts, to prove that I had continuously resided and been physically present in the U.S since June 15, 2007, and that I was currently enrolled in school. I would need forms of identification with photographs such as my foreign passport and my consular ID, my original birth certificate, and court documents, if any. I also needed to show proof of entry with documents such as medical records, sibling birth certificates, photographs or affidavits. Lastly, we learned that there would be an application fee of about $465 at that time (no cash), plus a filing fee for the organization, and that we would have to reapply every two years. Once we gathered all the documents and money we scheduled an appointment with the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional to help us with the application.

I remember that it was a tedious process. The lady helping us was very nice and made us feel safe and comfortable. Along the way, I had to sign many documents, verify all the information, and write a paragraph about why I was applying for DACA and what I hoped to achieve with it. When everything was ready, the lady handed us the application in an envelope and informed us that we needed to drop it off at a postal office. A few months later, I received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security stating that I had been accepted and granted DACA and employment authorization. I suddenly felt I could envision my future clearly and see all the endless possibilities that I could achieve. While DACA is not a permanent solution and does not grant me U.S. citizenship, I felt hopeful of the opportunities ahead and safer in a government dedicated to expelling immigrants. DACA and AB 540 helped me achieve my dreams of attending a four year university.

The college application process was different for me compared to my friends. I had to file for the California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to receive certain financial aid at a state level who qualify under AB 540. This was a sharp contrast to my friends who filed for FAFSA. There was also a lack of knowledge from educators about the application forms and process. Support from educators continued to be absent until a new Hispanic counselor helped answer all the questions I had. I asked him how to answer questions about my legal status or about how I could file for the CA Dream Act, for example. The application process took a few months and when the application, personal inquiry statements, and financial aid were submitted, I felt a huge sense of relief. A few months later, I started getting acceptance emails and decided that I would be pursuing my educational career at the University of California, Irvine.

Photo taken by Josselyn

Dreams I once thought would be impossible for me to achieve, were finally becoming a reality. When I accepted my admission into UC Irvine, I had a rough estimate of how much I would be paying out of pocket for tuition. The summer before the start of the fall quarter, I received the bill and got scared because it was nowhere near the estimate that I had been given. I realized I was getting charged for tuition as a nonresident so I contacted the financial aid office, where they told me that I needed to submit the “Statement of Legal Residence Form” which is under AB 540, in order to be exempted from nonresident tuition. The form asked about my legal status, date of birth, SSN, where I attended school, the years I attended, parent’s information, driver’s license information, and employment. Once I submitted the form, I was charged as a CA resident. Other financial aid I received to help pay for my tuition included the Cal Grant A, the UC Irvine Grant, and the Chancellor’s Excellence Scholarship. The Cal Grant A was filed under my California Dream Act, while the UC Irvine Grant and the Chancellor’s Excellence Scholarship were given to me when I enrolled. The Chancellor’s Excellence Scholarship is for freshman and transfer students who applied for Fall admission by November 30th and are considered California Residents. Students for this scholarship are selected based on their application, including their grades, and can be renewed for an extra year. Another scholarship I later received was the “middle class scholarship” that is given to US citizens, California residents, or those who qualify under AB 540. This scholarship is designed to help students whose family’s annual income is a maximum of $191,000. When I first learned about these scholarships, I was not sure if undocumented students could qualify for them. I thought that many scholarships would only be for US citizens. Looking back, this assumption was in part because I lacked support and information from educators at my previous schools. College changed the level of support that I received as an undocumented student and I no longer felt as if I were the only one experiencing this set of hardships. I learned to embrace my identity as an undocumented student under DACA and no longer shied away from sharing my story and my legal status.

I am now a UCI alumni who graduated in the Spring of 2023, an immigrant who works for a non-profit organization, and a daughter who is achieving all the things her immigrant parents came here for. All the aspirations and goals I set for myself were possible to achieve with amazing programs and bills, such as DACA, AB 540, AB 60, and the CA Dream Act. As we have witnessed the attempts to terminate DACA  under the Trump administration, the uncertainty behind DACA will continue to linger in our minds, but it remains one step closer to helping undocumented students achieve endless opportunities once thought to be unattainable.

JOSSELYN recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychological sciences from the University of California, Irvine. Growing up she did not know what she wanted to major in, but after taking psychology classes, she fell in love with it. Josselyn hopes to attend graduate school and get her master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology. She wants to be able to help make people’s work environment better, as that is where people spend most of their lives working. Her goal has always been to help others so she is determined to continue to help anywhere and anyone that she can.


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Categories: Life After High School, Navigating College, Navigating High School

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