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The nightmare of higher education as a first-generation, undocumented student

By Ana Salgado, Mar. 15, 2022

“Oh, so unfortunately, undocumented students don’t qualify for work study—but you can always work at the university’s Carl’s Jr.”

This was said to me in Summer Bridge, the summer before my first year, by an Educational Opportunity Program staff member. At the moment, I didn’t know how to respond and I feared I wouldn’t build my work experience on a professional level.

To them, it was an easy solution to advise me to work at a fast-food restaurant. To me, it was an insult. I spent my nights in fear, anxious that I would not become who I aspired to be.

It is not an easy feeling to open up to an adult, especially when those adults are faculty members who may not share my experiences.

Senior policy analyst Jeanne Batalova and co-founder and executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration said, “of the 19 million students at U.S. colleges and universities in 2018, 28% were either first-generation immigrants or the children of immigrants.”

We are living in constant fear of rejection because even if we had a private space to disclose our struggles, we deal with the anxiety and frustration of not having the trust in reliable sources. For example, when a scholarship is catered to a specific group, is it meant for them only, or are they extending the invitation to other individuals requiring citizenship? I feel like I am being excluded.

We are told in high school we are going to have an amazing college experience—but that wasn’t the case for me.

Navigating virtual learning in a pandemic for almost two years has resulted in trial and error. I didn’t have the opportunity to work from home.

Justin Oo | The Poly Post

The retail industry required workers to constantly focus on zoning areas and stocking merchandise that was being purchased online. I was putting myself and my family at risk because even if I chose a different job, people were getting unemployed and losing their jobs.

You must learn everything on your own and without any guidance. At home, it can makes us feel as if you’ll never get to see the light at end of the tunnel.

I learned to value my parents’ strong work ethics and use this example to fill in the academic gaps. In order to fill the financial gap and help my parents, I managed two full-time retail jobs while attending classes full time.

It is my third year of school and I continue to struggle in securing financial aid. I hope to turn the nightmare of the first-generation undocumented student into a long-awaited dream.

I would like for financial aid workshops to have unique meetings just for prospective undocumented students. Although Cal Poly Pomona says that it is committed to the success of undocumented students, the workshops I attended spent most of the time dissecting Free Application for Federal Student Aid and then covered The California Dream Act application like an afterthought.

Workshop guides need to be better educated on CADAA rather than “Googling” a question which I have had happen, and this misguidance led me to pay the university around $800 more than expected I ended owing my parents money for bills I was behind because I had to save the money I didn’t have.

This is extremely important to me because according to Dreamers Ally Network Cal Poly Pomona, “undocumented students don’t receive enough financial aid when being compared to their low-income peers with legal status to cover college expenses.” These steps would reduce owing the university thousands of dollars.

I learned to never take for granted the little things in life. For example, the car rides while being in high school. I have developed thick skin because of public transportation from Pomona to campus.

Time is precious, so walk fast or you’ll either run into trouble from a stranger with dark motives and walk faster because you’ll be late to class. My personal favorite was missing a bus and wasting two hours that I could have used to review for a midterm or start a project.

My first year consisted of intimidating dogs chasing me down an alley, homeless people following me home and my worst torture—men in luxurious cars pulling up to show me an intimating facial expression as they asked for sex.

I feel like the public transportation system can be improved with a supervision team for the safety of our students and or at least closing the distance between stops. Dropping students around the university blocks away from the bus stop isn’t enough to feel safe.

I find it absurd that the university believes that commuting and carpooling is the only solution. Not everyone has the privilege to drive a car to school and not everyone’s schedule is the same. Some classes aren’t available certain days.

The support systems that I have found have reduced the levels of stress that weigh on me. By reducing the level of anxiety and fear undocumented students live in when we are granted enough resources for our education, then we feel like we belong.

The Bronco Dreamers Resource Center served as a shoulder to lean on “los amigos se cuentan con los dedos de la mano,” which translates in Spanish to, “friends are counted on the fingers of the hand,” for undocumented students and allies. We comfort and support to each other to “seguir la lucha para el sueño Americano,” which translates to, “continue the fight for the American dream.”

Although I do have shoulders to lean on during difficult times, I do believe that more leadership positions should be granted to undocumented students at the center.

I would like for the BDRC to have more undocumented students lead and be the voice because only we would know the true struggle and fear.

I am not just an “non-resident alien” as labeled in the school’s population stats website. I am a proud brown-skin woman who is eager to see success in herself and see “La Raza truinfar,” which translates to, “The race triumphs.”

To see the change in more dreamers, we need more undocumented leaders and voices; we need to make a change.

Los Dreamers Tambien pertenecemos,” meaning, “the ‘Dreamers’ also belong.”




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