The Plight of Undocumented Students

In the spring of 2008, I sat at my high-school graduation ceremony, wearing my navy-blue robes, with every stole and honorary pin achievable, looking every bit like the overachiever that I am. My enthusiasm surely made me look like a typical graduate. But my future appeared very different from that of my classmates. I am an undocumented person. Six months after I was born, my family emigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles illegally—with little more than one suitcase but great hopes for the future. My parents wanted to give their two daughters opportunities that weren't available back home.

Still, for most of high school, one opportunity seemed like a farfetched dream. Though I had a great deal of support from many different people, nobody seemed sure how I could navigate the system to gain a college education. Information on all aspects of that process was sketchy, so I was stepping onto an unmarked path. It was difficult to live without any assurance that high school would lead, as it would for most of my classmates, to the next stage. I found solace in my studies. I took seven AP classes to test my abilities as a student and delighted in the fact that I could walk into AP English ready to dissect a Shakespeare play. I played the cello to calm my soul, dreaming of a place where music filled the air. I joined my school's leadership ranks and took pride in my ability to motivate people. And I joined clubs that enabled me to give back to a place I loved, organizing two toy drives and devoting more than 300 hours to community service.

Every activity allowed me to cling to some sense of normalcy in a life that was changing. My parents' marriage had begun to crumble, slowly and painfully. I had to learn to stand on my own, to be accountable to myself. School felt safe, and I was fortunate to have a support system in a special program for economically disadvantaged students who hoped to attend college. Every student in the program had a story of hardship, so I no longer felt quite so alone and isolated in my struggle.

I eventually came up with a small list of possible colleges—state schools that I might be able to afford or schools that offered scholarships for undocumented students. That April, I received my acceptance to UC Berkeley, and soon after, a few small scholarships. It was a bittersweet triumph. Though I was qualified to attend the best public university in the nation, I couldn't afford it. My funds barely totaled $5,000, only about one semester's tuition. Still, I wanted to attend my dream school for at least that first semester. So after graduation I hopped on a Greyhound bus with two suitcases and headed to Berkeley.

I found a tiny room near the campus, enrolled in classes, and landed a job selling jewelry in a San Francisco mall. From Friday through Monday, I worked full-time, waking up at 6:30 a.m. to get to work by 9. I couldn't spend the weekends like other students, lazing in the sun or exploring neighborhoods. Still, for two glorious days each week, Tuesday and Thursday, I had classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and was taught by some amazing professors. I would run from one class to the next, using my breaks to stop by the library. I slept odd hours, many days finishing homework at the crack of dawn. I was very well organized. Wednesday was the day I took care of business—everything from food shopping to laundry to paying bills.

Surprisingly, I found time to make friends and, perhaps more surprisingly, mostly with political conservatives. They proved to be remarkably open-minded, and I loved their outlandish conversations and unabashed candor. They never questioned my odd hours, nor did I offer to explain. They apparently believed that I was simply another workaholic. Perhaps not so "simply," but I was a workaholic for sure. I had no choice.

As expected, my funds ran out right after that first semester, forcing me to leave that very special school. I am back home now and attending community college. And I am back on the same taxing schedule—two days of classes and four days of work. My goal is to save some money while finishing up my associate's degree. I still enjoy school, but dream about someday attending Berkeley again.