Crossposted from Change.org
I always knew I was different from everyone else. I had to translate the world to my mother, who raised me on her own. Growing up, I always heard my mother complain that she couldn’t do something because she didn’t have ‘’papeles,” or papers. I never paid much attention to this because it wasn’t affecting me — or so I thought. My mother’s struggles soon became my own, and I tried my best to relieve some pressure by helping her raise my siblings.
Undocumented student start noticing inequalities our junior and senior years in high school because those are the last years of happiness for us. After graduation, we’re officially undocumented and no longer feel equal to citizen students. I maintained a 3.6 average in high school, was winning essay contests, volunteering any chance I had, and president of a club. Anyone would have expected great things from me after graduation. Yet undocumented students usually have to degrade themselves and settle for less than their best. I grew up thinking that if I did just as well as any student, I deserved an education, but I’ve learned the hard way that this isn’t true.
The summer of my junior year, I participated in a College Bound program that would help me decide what I wanted to do with my life. During those weeks, I learned about loans, grants, financial aid, majors, and much more. While I was telling my mom about financial aid, she asked me if I qualified for all that privilege. I thought I did, but there was a small doubt. Later, I found out that I didn’t qualify for any of those things and I couldn’t understand why, if I studied and worked just as hard as anyone else. I refused to believe it and decided that, starting my senior year, I would work harder to qualify for financial aid, loans, and grants.
As senior year rolled around, so did college applications and acceptance letters. In New York, we have a system of CUNY public colleges, which are cheaper than private colleges and state universities. Of course, I applied to CUNY schools because these were the only ones I could afford if given scholarships; I didn’t look into or even think about state and private colleges. Since I had decided to major in Criminology after taking a forensics class, CUNY-John Jay seemed perfect. When I got accepted, I sat in my living room and cried with my mom. I was the first in my family to be accepted into college, and even though I hadn’t graduated from high school yet, my mother was proud. She had left Colombia with hopes of me continuing my education, and this was the first step to making her dreams a reality. I was excited and I felt accomplished.
The end to my senior year was approaching, and I had to attend an orientation session at the college of my choice. I grabbed all the paperwork I could find, determined to show the financial aid administrators that I did qualify for financial aid and that if they helped me pay for college I wouldn’t let them down. As I sat in the waiting room you could hear my heart beating a mile away. I was so nervous, but so excited, because I knew I would leave that office with great news to bring back home. I sat there imagining myself in five years working with crime scene investigators and helping them catch the bad guy. I imagined my college graduation with my mom in the crowd applauding and screaming her heart out for me.
It was finally my turn, and I walked into the financial aid office for the first and last time. The administrator didn’t ask for my name, transcript, or resume. She just asked for my social security number and I bravely told her I didn’t have one. She put her paperwork down and looked me in the eye. Without blinking she told me that I wasted my time coming in today if I knew I didn’t qualify for financial aid. The administrator told me if I didn’t have the money to pay for my education then I might as well give up because there was no help for me. She continued talking, but I couldn’t hear her; reality had finally set in and I didn’t want to face it.
After a long and horrible day at orientation, I was finally allowed to leave. I sat at the nearby park and cried until there was nothing left inside me, and this time, they weren’t tears of happiness. I was ready to give up and forget about school.
How could it be that just yesterday I was determined to prove myself, and just like that I had been beaten? What would my mother say if I told her I was giving up on her dreams and mine as well? I knew being undocumented was going to be hard and I couldn’t let the first obstacle ruin my dreams.
I started an intense scholarship search; I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me I couldn’t go to school. I wasn’t going to let anyone decide my future, and I was determined to prove to that administrator and anyone else that they were wrong. I found an organization that offered a scholarship and internship for any student, no matter their status, I quickly applied. The moment I found out I had gotten the internship I screamed so loud, I couldn’t believe it. Thanks to this organization, I successfully completed my first college semester with a 3.7 average.
Somehow, life can never give me too much happiness without taking some away. I couldn’t afford the following semester and I hadn’t found any other scholarships, so I had to drop all my classes. It hurt to do it, but I had no choice, and I knew that this would be the first of many disillusionments. I feel like a tourist in my own school, and I’m scared of being kicked out for not being a steady student.
I know I have a lot to learn and a long way to go, but if I surround myself with great people, it won’t be as difficult. Now, I work for that same organization who paid my first semester of college. The New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) has given me many opportunities and has provided me with hope for the future. It’s this same hope that I want to give to others because I know there’s students out there that want to give up. The DREAM Act would open up so many doors for me and others like me. Sure, I might not have those famous nine digits now, but wait until I do have them — I’m going to change the world!