Hey, World: I Am Immigrant and I Graduated College

In the spring of 2012, I unpacked bags and sat on a bed I shared with my mother, a bed inside a room rented through a former friend in the Falls Church area. I had returned from my first year at a small liberal arts school, Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I had returned to stay, with fears of having reached the end of my college years.

Months back, I had sat with my school’s financial aid officer to discuss my financial standing and immigrant status.

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2013 protest. Photo by Claudia Rojas.

Did I have a visa? No, I didn’t. What I had was a work-permit granted to Temporary Protected Status holders, people who enter the country illegally, but who are protected by the U.S. because they did so to escape from natural disaster and war. There were little hopes of attending a school with an annual $45k tuition.

I was slow to understand my scholarship search yielded no results because of my immigrant status. Whether I was a permanent resident or citizen, of which I was neither, was not something I thought about as a child.

I didn’t come into college aware I was in a financial mess; Simon’s Rock was a college for youth with ambition. I was accepted into the 2011 class with a 4.0 high school GPA and without a high school diploma. I wouldn’t need a high school diploma; I would graduate from the college and receive a Bachelor’s Degree. My plan, however, didn’t calculate my naivete about American systems.

While most immigrant students learn and come to understand their status by junior and senior year, when they meet with counselors to discuss their future, or lack of future, I didn’t have those years. I started Simon’s Rock after I had finished sophomore year.

I was impatient and eager. I had filled out paperwork on my own. My counselors and teachers were either too excited or impressed by my goals to ask me the real questions: What do you know about the college application process? What do you know about finance?

After my conversation with the financial aid officer, I spent months in distress. I had to come to terms with the idea that the world wasn’t at the palm of my hands.

Instead, I was at the mercy of my immigrant status.

On August 10th, 2012, the day I turned 18 years old, I took the GED exam. I ranked in the 99th percentile rank in the Language Arts Reading and Writing portions. I made a return visit to Northern Virginia Community College, and was finally allowed to enroll.

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Math at NOVA. Photo: Claudia Rojas

I spent many unhappy classroom hours at NOVA, but I also discovered that my assumptions about community college were unfounded. In the eyes of these college students, I saw perseverance and dreams. I saw potential, saw hope for myself. In 2013, I began a short-lived experiment with social justice, taking part and promoting immigrant protests in Washington, DC.

Before long, I was wishing to stay longer at NOVA. The year I transferred to George Mason University–after Smith College and Georgetown University had rejected my application–I was hopeless.

I had no scholarships. I lived half an hour away from campus. I had to take on a part-time student load. I had tuition bills to cover on my own, after my first year at college drained my mother’s energy and finances.

I hated the struggle my future had become.

It was 2014 and I felt incapable of finishing college. I was working and studying, and maybe I was amounting to nowhere. In the middle of tears, I contemplated dropping out; this on more than one occasion. In the spring of 2016, George Mason University awarded me with a Stay Mason Fund scholarship. I had earned it not because of my academic record, but because I was on the verge of economic despair.

I was fortunate (or misfortunate) enough to have the scholarship renewed for my final year at Mason. There were many difficult moments.

This spring, I was in a car accident–another car ran straight into traffic and hit my car. On that February day, I spent several hours not worried about my health, but about what the insurance agent had said, if a totaled, the car couldn’t be fixed. A day later, it was declared totaled.

IMG_0100.JPGI didn’t know how I would manage school, except that things have a way of working out. Through Uber, Lyft, metro, bus, friends’ cars, and wandering feet, I did it. In spite of my low spirits, in spite of the new presidential administration, I made it.

This past May, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in English. Para mami / For mother: for all the years spent in uncertainty and doubt about the college dream.

I write this to remind myself of the journey. I write this to remind myself that the struggle is not over.

This is to remind myself that I am still immigrant, but that I am strong.

1,000 miles: step 79

The fall semester is now over.

I have submitted “finals,” known as projects to the English major. Grades are coming in. I have gaps of time–yes, time. It has all gone by so fast.  This semester I made a savvy choice, and I took all poetry classes: a small-sized workshop, a course taught in Spanish, and a course covering African American poetry from the 50s and beyond. I’m grateful for the semester; I gained exposure to an unbelievable range of poets and interesting perspectives from classmates.

At school, I ate a waffle in the library, learned a little salsa, attended a few open mics, carved a pumpkin, and started a gym routine. I didn’t plan some of these things; they just worked themselves out. I also attended two literary festivals in September: the Library of Congress National Book Festival in DC and Fall for the Book events on campus. In November, I spent three hours at the African American History and Culture Museum. Time spent well, all in all.

In the spring, I’m once again taking poetry classes. I want my final days as an undergrad to be full of poetry. When I think of the future, it is still scary, but I’m more willingly to get there.

2016 has been good to me. There have been bad days. I’m not going to lie: I spent post-election day crying–mourning to be precise. This week wasn’t entirely good either. Tuesday night I was upset with news of Aleppo. Wednesday morning I woke up further into sadness with this tweet still in my mind:

And it is because today I am alive, and yesterday I was alive, that I am thinking of everything–support, laughter, art, growth– that 2016 has offered me.

Thank you, world.

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1,000 miles: step 69

So I’m here again.

Staring at a blank screen.

I’ve been meaning to get here for over weeks.

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For three months, I’ve been preoccupied with school and work (but mostly work). I spent the summer building up anxiety about this semester. And it wasn’t bad. I got out fairly decent. Reunited with old friends. “Swam” at the school pool. Attended several talks and a drama production. Listened to a professor play and sing. Read a plethora of literature genres.

George Mason University is definitely a vivacious experience, though I have missed out on plenty as an off-campus and restrictive talker, which is not to say I have an excuse. Let’s not talk about how I didn’t make any new friends at school. Let’s talk about how my team at work is friendly.

I have two teams, both friendly. At the middle school, where I spend more time, everyone was new to the site. I was the only “senior” tutor this year, and I had only been a tutor 3 months before that. With winter break around the corner, it’s almost as if they are the seniors now. There is teamwork. There is comfort in the room.

I told my coworkers today that over the weekend I almost lost my voice. And the tease of the team, of course, responds with “how is that possible?” I barely talk.

1,000 miles: step 68

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Not a bad sky for a new school!

Dear reader,

We last left off with my anticipation for coming months. We pick up again with the same feelings, new experiences. Over the course of 2 weeks, I’ve said good-bye to my one and only wisdom tooth, money in the bank, and peace of mind. I’ve said hello to George Mason University after anxious and tearful nights.

I’m finally back to school, though as a part-time student. This marks the first period of my life in which I seriously have to divide my heart into two. The story line? This is about a girl with commitment issues. The balancing act between studying, working, and living.

Life unfolding and going.

1,000 miles: step 67- the tuition monster

Some of us believe in monsters, hiding under beds. Quite harmless manifestations of childhood fears.

I know a more hated, detrimental monster. The Tuition Monster was born of grown up children’s financial nightmares. Escaping this monster isn’t easy; it comes with the price of education. I know not all people are living under this monster’s shadows. But some of us are still running.

This upcoming school semester, I have gotten far away from the tuition monster. Though not far enough. The monster lures in blatant obstacles. Bills pop up. The car needs fixing. Visit to the dentist. Visit to the dentist. The car needs gas. The car needs gas. Bus rides. Household supplies. The car needs gas. The car needs gas.

I find myself in routine. Driving mom to work. Driving myself to work. There are days when I’ve automatically made and exit, and panic for a few seconds, because I wasn’t really there for that turn. I wasn’t really there. Sometimes, I’m not really here.

Like grief, the tuition monster moves in with your thoughts and doesn’t pay rent.

In fact, the monster has the nerve to demand rent from me. But I’m tired of our arguments.  

Yes, I’m going out without you… no, I haven’t found another monster.

Yes, you’re moving out soon. No, I don’t want you back.

1,000 miles: step 54

As a fall 2013 graduate of Northern Virginia Community College, it has been my task for over a month now to find myself a job. Job seeking with an Associate’s Degree and little experience in the field of teaching is problematic.

As consolation, I remind myself that a number of people have gone through unemployment and survived. It takes a lot of grit to overcome. (Scholarship seeking is a similar story.) Also, this is great preparation for when I walk out with a Bachelor’s Degree and jobs don’t land at my feet. Because that Bachelor’s Degree is totally happening, even if it takes longer than my impatient self would like.

For now, I’m grateful that after a dozen of sent applications and reading through a ton of job postings, I got 2 interviews. One job offer. Some tutoring on the side. And of course, a lot of unpaid volunteer work on my part.

It’s a beginning.

Recent sights:

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An open book showing the Jefferson Memorial during cherry blossom season located at the Thomas Jefferson Public Library in Arlington, VA. Oh, so clever.

The winter storm weather of today, Janus, brought in a lot of crows (which are good luck depending on who you ask).

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1,000 miles: step 40

Like all summers (and winter breaks), now that school is right around the corner, it feels like my days are flying past at 65 miles per hour–and that’s too fast for me. I know because that’s the speed that drives me insane whenever Mom puts me on the freeway.

This summer, I started working a few hours with my campus bookstore. It’s been a completely new experience for me, and I’ve learned that the retail business is not my calling. When it comes to people giving up money, it’s not cotton candy and sunshine. Though, I have had the pleasure of having quick, but engaging conversations with customers and coworkers. It’s the little things that keep me going… after all, Claudia needs money for some expensive textbooks herself.

The most memorable part of these past months has been trying out something I’ve lost practice in: keeping in touch with friends. And it’s quite fun, especially when it involves a trip to the zoo.

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these sea lions fascinated me so much, and my accompanying friend was fascinated by my fascination

these sea lions fascinated me… my accompanying friend was fascinated by my fascination

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Tulip, the cutest cow around town

And family time is not far behind. I’ve had several sibling moments now that my brother visits more often. I suppose, he enjoys an entire apartment to himself.

The kid thinks I’m “too much crazy,” which is fine. Mild insanity (in the form of emotions) seems to run in the family. At least, on my father’s side.

Here’s one of the pictures I took at our trip to Ocean City:

My toddler-cousin brought these to my attention, right as we left the beach

My toddler-cousin brought these to my attention, right as we left the beach

Cheers for a summer had, summer going, fall coming. 🙂

1,000 miles: step 35

Dear reader, today I walked outside, facing a wind of some 17 miles per hour–it was probably much higher, that or I’m too much of a feather. It was then I realized I picked a wrong day to wear my hair loose. And so, I propose someone invent windshield glasses for those breezy days when your long hair is a safety hazard.

You may ask, was the risk of hitting a tree worth it? Yes! I got a lovely comment from a receptionist lady once I got inside safe ground. Did you know, Claudia has a calm spirit about her? On a such a windy day, too. But it doesn’t end there, reader.

This week, I started tutoring a 5th grader in English and math. I’m hoping to get her to find grammar useful, tolerable, at least. I might teach her some poetry along the way. I might even find some way to make math a fun journey for both of us. One positive thing is that she’s warming up to me. She laughs (more-or-less) freely at my stories and peculiar nature instead of giggling into her hands. She doesn’t hold back as many questions, perhaps it helped that she discovered I have a brother about her age. She even listened to me sing “Hey There Delilah” without covering her ears. Such a kind soul.

I like teaching. I’ve been doing it at my public library with computers since last year. Now, to help Mom out a bit, I get to teach scholastic material. Slowly, but surely, I’m getting to the point of teaching college students creative writing.

That day won’t come fast enough. That day is an uncertainty. There are still days when I wonder if I’ll make it through a Bachelor’s Degree (not to mention an Associate’s). Yet, I won’t go down without a fight. Dr. Rojas sounds too cool of a name to give in.

Not all good things in life are planned. My stumbles are never planned, but they are part of that one day.

Earlier this week, the bus I was riding got overcrowded, so I got off two stops early. This was my reward.

Earlier this week, the bus I was riding got overcrowded, so I got off two stops early. This was my reward waiting on the side of a street.

1,000 miles: step 32

With two weeks left in this spring semester, it is no wonder my days are getting shorter. (And I wouldn’t be totally off since mother nature still has days it believes winter hasn’t left Virginia). I don’t care much for these final days of school; they’re intended to stress out the already stressed out college student.

But because there is no Claudia-clone to replace me during these hectic weeks, and nor would that be fair to the said Claudia-clone, I have to survive. I refuse to go through it alone. In fact, it is such a pleasure to attend a college so diverse–and that’s expected from community colleges. Everyone copes with stress in unique ways, a result of their individual experience with stress. My favorite is laughter. On the days when my bubbly nature has wavered, the humor of my classmates and teachers pull me through.

For instance, today, my history professor was explaining the importance of digesting quotations for readers in essays, including our final paper due next week. He used the example of placing yourself in the scenario of a court case: A man has been killed, and another man, Billy, has left his prints on the gun whose bullet killed the first man. Your lawyer displays the gun in question, and says to the judge, “This gun has the fingerprints of Billy.” Our professor then asked us what we expected our lawyer to say next. Nearly everyone missed his analogy.

Two things happened:

  • Many were confused about what the scenario represented or missed the part in which the lawyer was defending us
  • Many of us didn’t know what the lawyer was supposed to say next, this was me until I heard the suggestions from the students in confusion about the scenario. This is what the lawyer would have said next, according to one confused student:

Although the fingerprints of my clients aren’t here, she might have used gloves to kill John.

At this suggestion, and the ones that followed, I burst out laughing. It was at that moment that it was finally clear to me what the lawyer would have to say. And after our professor retold the scenario, everyone understand that the lawyer had to explain the evidence:

The presence of Billy’s fingerprints, and the lack of my client’s fingerprints proves that my client is innocent.

Now, I don’t know how that would satisfy a judge in the real world, but in terms of writing papers, hanging quotes are a big No. You never include a quote without interpreting it and showing its relevance. I learned that years ago, and still couldn’t finish “my” lawyer’s statement. And yet, I’m glad it didn’t click because that would have meant I would have blurted out a proper answer…. and miss such a beautiful moment of confusion.

My classmates are young, middle-aged, and old. Of all the races and places you can imagine. Of all the stages you can imagine: first years, transfers, back-to-school, retired. They are single-mom’s, working teenagers, international students on their own, grandparents looking for fulfillment.

Then there’s students like me: students in waiting, on hold, unsure of the next step. I’ve learned to cope with uncertainty because it is part of everyone’s life. I also know that I’ve been through too much to give in simply because there’s no promise of better days.

And I’m in no condition to complain because in this world, someone is always suffering, and unfortunately, it is almost a guarantee that their suffering is worse than mine or yours. Have you lifted anyone up today, dear-reader?

1,000 miles: step 20

Last semester, I applied to  Hollins University, an extremely small and private liberal arts school. It simply echoed the education I received at Simon’s Rock. Hollins, however, has a lot more going for it. What caught my eye the most was its strong creative writing program and its closeness to home. Hollin’s in Roanoke, Virginia, and though far to the south,  I would have fallen head over heels with the campus.

And I mean that. The first time I visited Great Barrington, Massachusetts for orientation week, the week before starting classes at Simon’s Rock, was the first time I had stepped foot at Simon’s Rock. I had seen pictures and read a lot about the school, but I had no doubt that when I stepped foot on campus, I would be at home. And that’s how it was.

I felt and feel the same about Hollins. I know it is a wise choice to visit school campuses before attending a school. But I am full of faith when it comes to places rooted in nature.

Something else about Hollins: it’s all-girls at the undergrad level. My mum, she wants me to expect the worst from men. Hollins would have eased her fears. And it would have also been an opportunity for greater intellectual growth—after all, women have been silenced far too much throughout history.

And so, when an envelope from Hollins University arrived in the mail today, I got curious. When I picked it up, and felt its weight, that of a feather, I already knew it was a fear come true.

I have written a piece for the Residency Now campaign, sharing the difficulties of being a TPS college student, and I confessed, “When I apply to 4 year transfer schools, the scariest thing is being accepted and not having the financial means to attend.”

And that’s what the letter of acceptance and rejection said, along with this: “You are a high caliber student and we wish we had better news.” The news was that as an international student, which is what I become when I apply to schools, Hollins didn’t have much aid to offer me.

The money they did offer is a lot for an international student. But I cannot and will not repeat the financial struggle of Simon’s Rock.

And yet, the news that a college–not an open-enrollment college like NOVA– accepted me is relieving. It’s what my advisors tell me come true: schools will want a student like you. It’s always hard to believe because of the misleading GED diploma I carry with me. Also, as is typical of a young women, I allow mirrors to twist any beauty that comes my way.

And the desire for intellectual beauty takes people far. I can only hope God is willingly to walk with me, whether I eat an apple or a plum as I get there.

And dear reader, that is all my heart is willingly to share for today.