03/12/2012 07:36 am ET Updated May 12, 2012

Outsmarting the System: Reflections of an Undocumented Scholar

Last month, two friends and I -- all members of a pioneering organization of undocumented graduate students, Graduates Reaching a Dream Deferred (GRADD) - made the trip from Los Angeles to UC Santa Barbara to give a workshop on navigating the graduate school admissions process, the undocumented way. We arrived on campus at a small, one-bedroom apartment shared by five students. Sitting on a couch the night before I was to hold this workshop inspired me to write this reflection piece.

One of my first thoughts as I sat in that small UCSB apartment was, "we sure have come a long way as undocumented youth." We have gotten so good at outsmarting the system and creating our own forms of survival in order to reach our educational goals and dreams. I remember my first year as an undergraduate at UC Riverside and how privileged I was, and still am, to have two amazingly supportive and hardworking parents who financed my college education, including room and board. Both of my parents got second jobs to pay for mine and my sister's college tuition.

I was able to live in the dorms my freshman year, but the rest of my undergraduate years were spent off campus sharing a room with one other roommate. I was never able to keep a roommate longer than a year; somehow we always ended up fighting over the most trivial things.

In retrospect, my roommates never did have to share a room with another person prior to college, nor could they relate to the experiences that are very common for undocumented students. Like, sharing a room not only with your siblings, but with other family members as well.

Throughout my childhood that was my experience. I've never had my own room. My parents, sister and I shared a room until I was in high school. It was not until after high school that the opportunity for my sister and I to have separate rooms even came about. Recalling these memories is sometimes painful - daily life events like these serve as a constant reminder of my undocumented status.

Looking around at this tiny UCSB apartment I was amazed at the sisterhood, friendship and camaraderie of these five young women. Four of them sleep in a crowded room with four beds and another sleeps on the living room couch. These young women have made it work because they share something that not many other students on campuses across the state, or nation, share: they are undocumented students. But aside from being students, they are leaders and activists on campus and in their communities.

I wanted to ask these young women how they met, how they managed to take turns in the restroom in the morning, how do they study when they have no space for a desk, what happens if one of them wants to take a break and watch TV, but someone else has to study? How do they do it? I didn't need to ask them. I already knew the answer: When you are undocumented and trying to survive in college, and in this country, concerns like these are trivial.

Although their statuses preclude them from most financial aid, they have managed to find ways to live close to campus and continue studying, even while the public education system in California continues to increase student fees (32% in 2009, 8% in 2010, and 9.6% in 2011 - and a shocking total fee increase of 300% since 2001 for the UC system).

This is what outsmarting the system has meant: Undocumented youth, by a systemic design, are not supposed to be going to college, let alone be getting professional and graduate degrees. The stories of students outsmarting the system in order to survive are many across universities throughout the nation, and they are important because they have paved a pathway for the next generation of undocumented students navigating higher education. We know of students sleeping in their cars or in the libraries, commuting by public transportation for an hour or two hours each way, creating schedules for when and where to access free food at pantries.

This tiny UCSB apartment is not the only one in the UC system. Recently, I heard stories of The Cabin, an apartment at another UC campus with an open door policy for students who commute long distances and crash on the floor to avoid wasting valuable time commuting by public transportation. Listening to the stories of The Cabin made me think, "Did I hear right? Students had to sleep under a table because the apartment was so crowded during finals week?" - Yes, I heard right. And those are the kinds of survival tactics undocumented students have had to resort to in order to stay in school.

I can't help to think how different my undergraduate experience would have been if I had friends and roommates who could relate to my undocumented experience. At that time, we were barely figuring out ways to make it to college and thinking we were the only undocumented student on campus. We have come a long way and we have created pathways for others, but it is not enough. Our presentation at UCSB, along with the presentations we have done over the years, and the ones we will be holding in the near future, is proof that we need to continue creating more opportunities for each other. Those of us who now hold post-graduate degrees have a responsibility to continue fighting and creating opportunities for the younger generation of undocumented students, all the while working for fair immigration reform.