Under the Kilt: Navigating college as an undocumented, first-generation student

Joshua Wang /HIGHLANDER

Being a first-generation student is difficult and it’s even more difficult with the added layer of being undocumented. An undocumented individual is not a legal citizen or resident of the United States, which presents intricate complications to a student’s college experience. San Diego State University conducted a study on undocumented student demographics and found that there are 25,000 undocumented students graduating from California high schools. Their identity is not always protected or discussed within campus demographics.

The process to obtain legal residency can be extensive and varies among cases; for me, personally, it took 13 years. The time it takes to become a citizen can take up to two decades. When I went to my first interview for my residency, it was stress-inducing and traumatic. The interviewer kept asking me, “Are you affiliated with a gang?” Even after I responded that I wasn’t, it was met with the threat of deportation. 

When I was in my senior year of high school, I had no clue what I was going to do with my undocumented status. Even if I was in honors and AP classes, I had no way to receive financial aid and many scholarships have documentation obstacles. When I tried to apply for financial aid, I was referred to multiple counselors who had no idea how to help me in my dilemma. My counselors weren’t equipped with the information to guide undocumented students into higher education. 

It was only because of a counselor who went out of his way to help me that I found about the California Dream Act. The Dream Act is a program that provides financial aid for college tuition to undocumented students. After I applied to the Dream Act, it was already late in the college application season. I was rejected by my top choice, and because I wasn’t taught to have multiple backups, my choices were limited. I was rejected by all the colleges I applied to and I was devastated.

This prompted me to go to my local community college. My parents taught me that I had to go to college to be successful, so taking a gap year wasn’t an option for me. This was around the time of the 2016 election, which caused my family to worry for my safety and wonder if I would obtain my residency to stay in this country. However, I was able to obtain my residency that summer by working with an attorney who appealed my case and helped me get a second chance at the interview process. 

My immigration status switched from AB 540, which only grants undocumented students in-state tuition costs, to my residency. My legal residency status went into effect one year and one day after my interview. Afterward, I was able to apply to FAFSA with the information my high school counselors had told me previously. 

Currently as a UCR undergraduate, I am navigating my educational journey far away from home — especially as the first in my family to leave our hometown of Coachella. Upon coming to campus, I felt at home because the majority of it, 41.5%, is comprised of Latinos, as stated by UCR’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

There are still moments in which I’m reminded of my legal residency status and the time I have to get my citizenship. It comes up most often during election season when I get asked, “Did you vote already?” It’s usually awkward to explain what my rights are as a legal resident. 

Then there were times in which my community college experience was an impediment. Being a transfer means being a lower priority for registering for classes. This means I often have a later date to obtain the classes I need to graduate, which as a result left me behind a quarter or two. 

My experience as an undocumented and first-generation student has taught me that I have to work twice as hard to get ahead. Upon stepping onto campus, I was happy to see the Undocumented Student Programs (USP) because it meant that one of my identities was acknowledged. I felt at ease knowing that I had a resource for any immigration questions. I’ve always had to keep up with deadlines for all the extra paperwork and reach out to resources, such as a network of other undocumented students. 

I remember that a student from Chicano Student Programs talked about how difficult it was for the campus to process her AB 540 forms. I know this may not reach every student but the best advice I can ever give undocumented students is to use on-campus resources, such as USP, and be in touch with your community. I wouldn’t have gotten as far in community college as an undocumented student without having a community to support me with communication and empathy. 

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