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.

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1,000 miles: step 68

masonterritory

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 42

I’ve been changing my mind.

A lot.

These days.

I’ve always thought of myself as stubborn. That what I say I will do is the final word. It’s not.

….

Lately, I’ve been wondering what I want to do with my college education. More specifically, what am I getting out of it? Is spending my mom’s custodian salary worth chasing my dreams? What are those dreams again?

On my room hangs a picture of a fireworks celebration at the University of Virginia. I have it labeled “GOAL.” I’ve had the picture since my 9th grade year of high school. But high school was centuries ago. This year, I no longer feel tenderness towards UVA.

I’m not as comfortable with making a living as a teacher. Or a writer. Or a professor who writes. Whatever the case, I won’t be making money.  This never vexed me before.

Today, one of my teachers rephrased my money question for me: can I manage happiness with “lack of money”?

I want to tell myself, that if anyone can make it work, that would be me. Because I’m already there. I’ve been here since the day I was born to a 15-going-on 16 year old mother. And if God granted mothers, I would choose her all over again in a heartbeat. I can’t imagine it any other way: rich or poor, she’s mine.

When there are days like this (and there are many), it all goes back to Mami. Being a first generation student, a college education is dear to me. Education is dear to me. In my mother’s struggles to pay the rent, I have reason enough to be patient, to endure these many years of college.

If only my heart weren’t so fickle.

1,000 miles: step 39

My goal is to teach creative writing at the college level. I have several years to wait, but for the past year I’ve had the opportunity to tutor at my local library.

For an hour, this teenager and a grown adult become student and teacher. Many of my “students,” are people who have never touched a computer or whose knowledge is limited. I can tell when we first meet, he or she assumes because I am so young, I will know everything about the computer. I don’t. In fact, I discovered a while ago through a friend, I don’t even know my operating system from company brands.

But I know enough to teach the basics. And when I say teach, I mean teach. Every one learns differently. I’ve had to slow down my speech or simplify my language with English as a second language learners. I’ve had to elaborate and define with the curious. I’ve had to find images, illustrate my own, point, and demonstrate. This is one-on-one teaching.

I can’t imagine handling an entire classroom… but it is something I am willingly to grow into, particularly since meeting people is thrilling. I believe we’ve all got something to teach each other.

Many of the people who visit me at the library are going through changes in their life. Some need a change of career, and some have unemployment-blues .

Over a month ago, I visited the Department of Education as part of a panel of students to discuss how immigration status and education can overlap, and what happens when they do. Although the audience wasn’t big, they were definitely curious. And so was I. The other students in the panel were recent graduates and had gone through several hardships. Hearing their stories, complicated in their own right, reminded me that a struggle isn’t its own outcome. It’s not the end of the line. It’s a perfect opportunity for growth.

I get closer to my ultimate goal by reminding myself: everyone is going through challenges–I’m no exception, and therefore not alone.

taken at the Department of Education, photographer Joshua Hoover

Claudia at the Department of Education, photographer Joshua Hoover

an undergraduate struggle

Rarely do I admit this, but most of my undergraduate courses don’t inspire energy. On the contrary, they rob me of energy. For 4 semesters (and one more to go), I have gone through requirement courses: general education or transfer suggestions.

In general, a community college student doesn’t have freewill when it comes to courses. Though I spend much of my time worrying about the future, two years ago, I didn’t anticipate landing at NOVA. I’m both blessed and distressed.

Distressed because I shouldn’t have been so picky when I took courses at Simon’s Rock. Blessed because I was selective enough; a lot of my credits transferred.

Yet, I took 3 courses my freshman year out of whim:

  • Psychology–whose little biology was too much for me and signaled one of my greatest weakness as an academic writer: flowery language. With two semesters of biology (the last this semester), I’m correcting this criminal offense with ease. But not enough. My English professor this semester threw in another offense: my use of metaphors. For the record: Disguising a poet sucks, thanks academia.
  • Art of autobiography–the one place where my papers sounding like Claudia was not a problem. A class with overwhelming space for discussion and growth. Probably the class that’s taught me most about being a woman of a color…. not surprising, an all-girls class. Oh, and among the few classes that didn’t transfer over.
  •  Dalcroze Eurhythmics Thesis Performance–this was not transferred over, accordingly to the 1 credit rule: they won’t transfer. I didn’t dive into knowledge with this “course.” It was a senior’s project. I did spend quality and weird time with a mixture of rhythmic and nonrhythmic people (me usually being the latter).

And eurthymics has (what seems) permanently embedded this song into my head:

While general eduction courses have brought me headaches and once, contributed to a shingles onset (yes, I’m talking to you math-class-that-never-transferred), I have learned a great deal. Here’s but a brief, incomplete summary:

  • Freshmen seminar taught me to tolerate over-imposing opinions and to accept that logic is as good as any method of persuasion (except for Claudia, she’s allowed all the emotion in the world).
  • My history courses have reinforced my belief that history is repetitive and we’re not going to move forward without knowing where everyone’s been. The Chicano during the 60’s. The Native American during colonization. The African during enslavement. The European during religious prosecution. The Chinese during the 1880s… All our brothers and sisters during genocides. Wars. Economic collapses. (And you get the gist, reader.)
  • My precalculus course, this semester, well, that’s a secret love affair. (I discovered math and I are alike in this: crazy logic.)

And all the curricula combined have filled me with appreciation for the privilege of education. Even with my limbo status, I’ve made it far. And Lord knows, it’s a tough, merciless world out there.

Courtesy of my English professor’s teaching:

1,000 miles: step 19

From poet Chad Anderson’s  “Like Math”:

And I said, “Words, what are words when I love you like math?”
And she said, “Like math, is that how you think you love me?
You love me like….”
I said, “I love you like math,
Infinite and exact…”

Most days, the word hate isn’t in my vocabulary, mostly because I’m not quite sure I have ever understood the sentiment. And yet, I have uttered the phrase “Math, how I hate thee” (or something among those lines) far more than anything nice about math. Up until this semester, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever get along with math.

Though hate hasn’t kept me away from mathematics, but an inability to work several math problems step-by-step, on my own. I never met math at the finish line; we met halfway (like the Black Eyed Peas).

At Simon’s Rock, one semester of math was enough, and after many stumbles, I lived through Elementary Functions. Over a year later, I face Elementary Functions again, this time under the name of Pre-Calculus. And if Pre-Calculus and Claudia manage to become close to buddies, maybe Calculus will be my next scholastic friend.

But that another math follows is for certain, as certain as is the notion that this semester, math is finally remembering my name–or rather, I get it! This semester, I’m learning to hush the English major’s nagging voice to over-complicate the numbers and instead use the visualization perspective. My math sessions are filled with color, outlined by reasoning, and collaboration from my study group–and the occasional hysterical out-bursting.

No one ever told me talking out math could make people giggle. No one ever said, “Hey, the way you explained that makes sense. You should be a teacher.” And that’s where the occasional hysterical out-bursting of the day arrived.

I eagerly wait for the future days in which I teach not the logic of numbers, but the logic of expression…. or well, whatever logic poetry follows.

1,000 miles: step 14

Last night,  watching las noticias, the news, via Univision, there was a segment that took my breath away. It was a brief report about the Residency Now campaign for Central Americans under the Temporary Protected Status. My heart started racing with that crazy flutter of wings from which hope learns to fly with.

I am the last cynic to break when it comes to immigration reform, but I can’t help to smile when I look at the effort my home country, El Salvador, started last year. Although I have taken an entire year to discover this campaign, the game is just beginning. Should you feel the need to satisfy your curiosity about the effort:

Visit ResidencyNow.org and sign the petition here. The petition is sent straight to your state senator. (Tim Kaine, that means you!)

Like many of the 270,000 Central Americans under the TPS program, my fate has always been uncertain. Having started college in 2011, the limitations of my legal status fully unraveled. Immigration reform is personal now. I can longer find comfort in my tongue being free of accents. I can no longer find comfort in living in my beloved Virginia. I can no longer feel at home in the country that has seen me grow up. I can no longer make the choices that count without consulting my legal status.

Once upon a time, my scholarly spirit saw no question about making it through 4 years of college. Today, that same spirit has lost its glow. I have to remind myself falling apart is no reason not to come back together. I am not a fighter. I am a student.  I live for learning. Education means the world to me. I didn’t start college after the 10th grade because of mere impatience.

I also can’t stay at a 2 year community college all my life. I want to go places. I want to know that opportunity is up to me, not a legal document. I want to be responsible for where I go in life. I want to dream. I want to rejoice in the hope that 2013 will be a year of concrete action for all immigrants.