When I was 16 years old I watched as my friends were encouraged and pushed by their parents to take the SAT’s, go to the college fairs, meet with their mentors, tour campuses, apply for FAFSA, pick their schools, get picked by schools, buy hoodies with their new campus logo, buy decorations for their dorms, drive off to fulfill their dreams, develop their skills, tap into their potential and prepare to take over the world. At least that is what I believed as I held tight to the pieces of my shattered heart and even tighter to my deep dark secret.
I was undocumented.
No one in my family knew what SAT’s or any other academic acronyms were. My parents weren’t encouraging me to apply to schools, they didn’t really understand much about high school, I wouldn’t be applying to any campuses because as an undocumented immigrant I couldn’t attend my dream school or apply for any financial aid. Even if a private institution accepted me, my family could never afford to pay out of pocket for me to attend college.
Since the age of 14 I had been working at a pizza shop to help my family pay bills and buying my own school clothes and supplies. However, my pizza salary would never be enough to get me to college. It was a very dark time. I felt hopeless, I felt like a seed on a shelf with no soil, light or water to grow. I felt as if all of my dreams were impossible. I was heartbroken, feeling bluer than the deepest ocean. There were times when I wanted to disappear. I wanted to stop the pain, I wanted to stop feeling, I wanted to have the opportunity to spread my wings and fly just like all my friends. But something deep down inside of me, I suppose that little light they sing about kept me going. I would feel something inside of me tell me to keep on going, to make a way, to find a way, to blaze my own trail.
I have dedicated my whole life since then to honoring that calling within me. I decided that although I didn’t have the privilege, access, resources, opportunity to go to college I would live everyday learning something new, reading a new book, speaking to strangers to gather new perspectives, learning new skills, doing the jobs I could take to the best of my ability no matter how small the task, taking risks, believing in me and my big dreams even when others didn’t.
The journey has been arduous, long, challenging, and absolutely magical! Life has given me so many challenges and experiences but the other side there is always a stronger, sharper, brighter, new me. Every single experience has led me to who I am and closer to the future best me. Today I am a DACA recipient, Emmy Award winning storyteller, job creating entrepreneur, mother, and activist. The greatest irony is that I have the opportunity to speak at the same campuses that at one point of my life I didn’t have access to.
I am a huge advocate of education, most importantly an advocate of equitable access to education for all. Currently in America, education is a privilege that not everyone has. There are still states that ban undocumented immigrants from enrolling and states that prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. This is a tragedy. Expanding higher education access for everyone has the potential of making our nation stronger and is good for hardworking young people and their families as well as for the economy.
I feel deeply lucky and grateful everyday for the success that I have achieved in my life regardless of the challenges that I have encountered. However, I also know first hand how tough this journey is, how depleting, emotionally taxing, and isolating it is. I want to be an example but not the exception. Imagine who we can be as a nation if everyone has the chance to fulfill their full potential. Imagine that!