THE BLOG

My American Dream

11/20/2009 07:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A longer version was originally published on layouth.com, the website of L.A. Youth, a Los Angeles based newspaper written by and about youth. This story was produced in collaboration with Youth Radio.

Author's Name Withheld

A lot of people think illegal immigrants are a drain on the economy or a danger to the country. Or that they're criminals, because they're here illegally. But if this is right, then I'm a criminal, even though I sometimes forget that I'm undocumented.

My mom and I moved here from Peru when I was 5. We came to visit my mom's family, but my mother decided she would rather have me grow up here and have my sister born here surrounded by my mom's family. Since then, like any other kid, I've gone to school, studied hard to go to college and tried to make my family proud.

In ninth grade when I started looking into college during my AVID class (a program that helps students go to college), I learned that college applications and financial aid forms required a social security number, which as an undocumented immigrant I don't have. But I didn't give up. I thought I'd find a way to go to college, even though undocumented students can't get federal financial aid.

I didn't ask anyone what to do about not having a social security number because I was embarrassed and I didn't know who to ask. Why tell anyone and potentially put myself at risk of being deported? There were so many nights when I cried myself to sleep because I was freaking out about how I could make my college dreams come true.

I wanted big-name schools, because I thought they would have more generous financial aid. I also wanted schools in big cities, with good journalism or communications programs and plenty of internships.

After telling counselors, and friends about my immigration status, I saw that people didn't look down on me, but wanted to help. Through them I learned about the DREAM Act. This is a bill in the U.S. Congress that would allow undocumented students a path to U.S. citizenship. It would apply to people who came to the United States when they were 15 or younger who also graduated high school, completed at least two years of college (or military service) and stayed out of legal trouble. It would allow them to work legally, get a drivers license and financial aid (but not federal Pell Grants).

The DREAM Act seems like the perfect solution. It doesn't ask for anything unreasonable, just a chance to succeed by making the road to college a little easier.

My counselor had suggested applying to private schools because he knew that two alums from my high school who were undocumented had gotten generous financial aid packages from Loyola Marymount University. I added LMU to my list.

As I was filling out applications online, I would leave the social security number blank and then the websites would think I was an international student. And then I would have to e-mail the schools and ask how I should apply. Some private schools said to apply as an international student and others said to leave it blank. I narrowed it down to UCLA, UC Riverside, Loyola Marymount University, University of San Francisco and Columbia.

LMU and University of San Francisco seemed friendlier toward undocumented students because of their Jesuit mission of social justice, which means trying to help the less fortunate. Thinking about the undocumented girl from my high school who had received a great financial aid package from LMU the year before, LMU became my first choice.

In April, LMU hosted an overnight visit for Latino students who had been accepted to help make sure that they actually enrolled. I got paired up with the undocumented student from my high school, who was now a freshman at LMU. She was really encouraging and told me that the school might be able to help me get enough money to pay for any costs my family couldn't afford. But I was still too nervous to buy an LMU sweatshirt.

I got a phone message saying I had just been awarded $6,000 from LMU and that I needed to call back. I was told to call one of the admissions counselors who was trying to get additional financial aid for me. Soon I would find out my fate. I was anxious, scared and hopeful.

After the "hello, how are you," which felt like an eternity, she let me know that the school would offer me enough financial aid and scholarships to cover all the costs!
I cried. I didn't know what the right thing to say was but I thanked her and told her I was excited. My mom gave me a tight hug and I asked her to call everyone we knew. She said that she had believed in me from the beginning, so she had already been telling everyone I was going to LMU. She could have jinxed it!

Now that I've been here a couple months, I want to thank all the people who helped me. But I am one of very few undocumented students who had this much help, the courage to look for help and an opportunity to get financial aid like what I received from LMU. And that's why Congress needs to pass the DREAM Act. This law would help every one of us who wants a better future.

Also From Youth Radio:

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org. This story was produced in collaboration with L.A. Youth, a Los Angeles based newspaper authored for youth and by youth.