I walked towards the stage with my head down. My nerves and emotions felt heavier than I expected them to be. I knew as soon as I made eye contact with my parents I may break down so I continue to take deep breathes. I look up and there were only three students until it was my turn.
More than a decade ago, I walked across the desert for three days with my parents and siblings. I could tell my parents were not only exhausted, but suffered as they saw their young children walk across dirt roads. They didn’t want this for us. They wished there was another way to escape the violence and death. The pain in their eyes and bones made me realize they were being forced to put us in this situation. No parent wants to risk theirs and their children’s lives like this. No one does.
I was 11 years old when we crossed the border. Of course, I was distracted by the sounds of rattlesnakes and wolves, the shining stars at night, and my own exhaustion. As I walked across the never-ending dirt roads, I made a promise to myself; I would repay my parents for every sacrifice, every thorn in their bodies, and tears shed. I would repay them with a college degree.
We crossed borders so I could cross that stage and we couldn’t believe the day we’d longed for was finally here. During times of adversity, it felt as if the moment would never come, but it did. It felt unreal, yet real at the same time.
Throughout my four years as an undergraduate, things were far from easy for us. The first two years, I had to work multiple jobs to pay for my expenses and my parents helped me a great deal. There were times when we were hungry, when our utilities were shut off, and multiple times when we didn’t know how the rent was going to be paid. I sat in classrooms discussing what low income families, immigrants and refugees go through in the United States. I relived my reality whenever I would open a book or sat in a class discussion. I pretended to learn about systems of oppression as if I didn’t navigate through them everyday.
We do belong and we are here to prosper."
There were multiple times when I thought of giving up. In moments of weakness, I’d considered the idea that college was only for the documented, the smart ones, the ones with college funds and financial aid. Finding a full-time job to help my parents seemed like what I should’ve been doing instead. Fortunately, the thought of seeing my parents hold the diploma we worked for kept me going.
Our diploma means we have a greater chance of never being hungry again ― of only bringing out candles for birthdays, not dark nights ― and bringing my family with me as we reach new heights. It reminds me of the many students longing for this opportunity, and encourages me to take action in efforts to get them there.
College degrees belong in the hands of undocumented families because many fought for us to have this privilege and opportunity. It belongs in our parents’ hands for working countless of hours and putting their bodies on the line for us. A college degree is earned through hard work, dedication, and resilience. Those are some of the many characteristics that undocumented families embody.
Many around us claim that we don’t belong here nor are we wanted. I am here to tell you otherwise. We do belong and we are here to prosper. Earning a college degree is only one of the many ways undocumented families are successful in this country. A college education should not and will not continue to be an opportunity for a selective few. It is an opportunity that belongs to everyone, regardless of their legal status. It is up to all of us to open doors and build bridges that will allow more undocumented families to hold a college degree someday.
As my name was called, my parents stood up, screamed at the top of their lungs, then hugged each other as they cried. Within seconds, my eyes were flooded with tears of joy as well. The moment we had worked for all these years became a reality and it’s an experience no one will ever take away from us.