We cheered her on from a few feet away, and although the family was now divided, we stood together because her college graduation was a victory for all of us. I knew the excitement of the moment would prevent her from noticing us. But as she approached us and walked out of the auditorium, her eyes met mine and we shared a smile. The moment was bittersweet; I was proud of my sister. I was proud of my family. But I was also facing my future, or at least the uncertainty of it. As I watched her take hold of her bachelor’s degree, the struggles and challenges I would soon face tapped me on the shoulder.
A few years back, our family was financially stable. Both my parents were employed. But when they divorced, making ends meet became a testing task. Soon after my sister graduated, she was forced to put her career‘ advancement on hold and to take on a full time position as a receptionist in order to help the family. She soon assumed the role of head of the family, putting her name on the lease and covering some of the utility bills, responsibilities that came about due to the instability of my mom’s job as a housekeeper. The services women like her provide are luxuries that Americans are willing to live without during uncertain times. She has gone weeks without one day of work and has been forced to consider the option of returning to Colombia, where life is poor, but manageable because of the proximity of friends and family.
Junior year I had to face reality, the fact that I would encounter even more challenges than my sister had . While my sister was in college the family funds had often run low and the extra money we made went to her education. But the little savings we gathered were quickly depleted as we adjusted to the changes brought about by my parents’ divorce and the ever-present challenges presented by our immigration status. My father began a new life with a new family, thus limiting the money he could provide to his daughters. Now, my mom, who had never had to support a household on her own, was left with what seemed the weight of the world. The turbulence of our new lifestyle puts my college future on hold.
As an undocumented student I am not eligible for federal financial aid or for most scholarships. My options for higher education are limited; admittance to higher education institutions and scholarship offers are made nearly impossible since lack of legal status is expected to be made up for with merit. Working to fund my education is an option that seems more and more far-fetched because the stagnant economy and the political light being shed on immigration reform limit job possibilities and turn glaring eyes toward students like me. Scholarship funds would allow me to sustain myself only if my parents were to choose to leave the country.
For a while I was in a period of denial in which I was aware of my status but it still seemed like something foreign to me, something that didn’t affect me.
At moments I was determined to accomplish my dreams, while at other moments I felt like giving up. But my reality kept presenting itself. It was the uncertainty that threw me off balance.
I knew I could not let myself fall into a state of depression. I knew I needed a support system. I knew that I needed to face this challenge head on. I began by talking to my close friends and my family – but although they listened to all my frustrations and wanted to help me get out of my situation, I knew they could only do so much.
A newspaper article brought hope back to me. It praised the work of an organization, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, leading a campaign in support of the DREAM Act and the scholarships it offered. It was the first time I had heard of this bill and I became aware of the growing momentum of the movement at both the national and local levels.
I attended one of the YLC’s Get Active Conferences for youth interested in getting involved. I quickly connected with other participants and could see myself working with them in the future. My organizer self woke up. I began my involvement with my participation in the YLC’s High School Institute, which explored issues of race, organizing, and leadership. I used the resources and skills I obtained from the program to explain and advocate for the DREAM Act through research papers and a presentation for my English Writing College Now course. This was my first experience with activism.
The family I found in the YLC has offered me the guidance, encouragement and support that have kept me going. With every passing meeting I feel more comfortable about sharing my story. I have met too many talented individuals who have not been able to reach their full potential because they are trapped by their lack of legal status in the country they love, contribute to, and call home. I have seen the strength of heartfelt words whenever we welcome dreamers and allies. The inspiration and courage of the Dreamers in this country is the fuel of the immigrant youth movement.
As I prepare for the next chapter of my life (college!), I take control of my future. I will not let 9 digits have more control than I do. I hope to gain the tools and skills to further my role in the New York State Youth Leadership Council. I plan to prepare myself for a career in the non-profit world so that I can continue working with youth to encourage other undocumented students in situations like mine break loose from the paralysis and strains of their status, and share their own stories. I hope to provide a guiding light to help each of them reach his or her full potential. I know one day each one of us will be judged by the content of our character, not the lack of a nine-digit number.