At first glance I may appear an unlikely advocate for undocumented students. I am a direct descendant of a Mayflower passenger and Plymouth colony founder (a fact my mother rarely lets me forget). I grew up in Irvine, California, which, during my childhood, was a homogeneous white suburb in Orange County where the biggest conundrum was how to get toddlers to stop peeing in the community pool. I spent my college years at California State University, Fullerton, a school known for diversity, yet I did not connect with any of my fellow students.
In short, I was unaware of the obstacles undocumented students faced, mostly because I hadn't spent a lot of time with people outside my own area. Even though Orange County was, and continues to be, diverse, invisible boundary lines separate communities by class and race. This ipso facto segregation has improved slightly, but in the 80s and 90s it felt impenetrable.
It wasn't until I began working as a writing tutor at an after school program for high school students in Santa Ana, a mostly Latino community in Orange County, that I started to think about the issues of immigration and undocumented students. I had been helping one of my students, Alex, with one of many scholarship applications. Alex was a star--the type of student I wanted to be like in high school. He had an incredibly high G.P.A., was captain of his athletic team, held leadership positions in numerous clubs, dreamed of being an engineer, and was, literally, an altar boy for his church. I couldn't figure out why he was applying to so many scholarships, so I questioned him about it. He replied, "Oh, I'm undocumented."
When I asked him to clarify what that meant, he explained that he came to the U.S. when he was two-years old with his parents. Because he didn't have papers, he didn't have access to financial aid. He had to apply to so many scholarships because he didn't know how he was going to pay for college. He also told me that there was no pathway for him to become a permanent resident or citizen. He was caught in legal limbo; his situation was unjust, unfair, and perhaps insurmountable.
This interaction marked the beginning of my support for the DREAM Act. Through my work, I meet many young students like Alex. Now as the Director of Higher Education at my organization, it is my task to walk our high school seniors, documented and undocumented alike, through the college application and selection process. Since I had no clue how to counsel our DREAM students at the outset, I familiarized myself with immigration law and educational policies. I spent hours looking for scholarships that didn't require citizenship. I joined "DREAM teams" on Facebook so that I could get the latest news and respond to calls to action. I held fundraisers and created scholarships. I talked about the DREAM Act with family members and friends. I sought knowledge from DREAM allies. I wrote letters to politicians. Somewhere along the way, I became an advocate.
My advocacy work has led me to examine life outside my comfort zone of privilege--to realize that just because something doesn't affect me personally doesn't mean I shouldn't speak up and demand change. It's easy to experience the world as "me" and "them;" it's much more challenging to live it as "us."
Being a DREAM Act supporter has also made me appreciate my own access to higher education. As a result, I'm now pursuing a doctorate in Education. I don't have much spare time, and I wish I could do more than what I'm doing. When I see one of my students weep because she realizes that it will be nearly impossible to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, or when I hear my student's voice break when he tells me his family is getting deported due to some lawyer screw-up, I find myself simultaneously enraged and helpless. I wonder if the work I do will make a difference; I wonder if change is truly possible. But then I push that thought away, hand a tissue to my student so she can wipe her tears, and go on with my work. If my students, and other Dreamers, can find the courage and fortitude to carry on, then I too must summon my strength and continue in my efforts.
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