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.

fightin’ #timeisnow

“It is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”

-Andrea Gibson, spoken word poet and activist

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I often admire the immigrant’s ambition

for it take guts to leave behind an entire world

carrying on your back the weight of an American dream

and at arriving watching your dream unfold into a nightmare…

 

it’s more than the realization these streets aren’t made of gold:

it’s the fear that the color of your skin

and the accent in your tongue

is somehow too alien…

 

the possibility that in this new land, you’re not human enough.

1,000 miles: step 31

“Ice: water frozen solid

ICE: Immigration Customs Enforcement”

La Santa Cecilia’s lead singer, La Marisoul, showcases her breathy, resonant voice through this song. The song is delivered was such sincerity, such reality, it has been hard to budge from my consciousness.

It tells the story of Eva, who cleans home for a living with fear in her heart.

of Jose, who was a taxi driver once upon a time and now drives an old truck

of children and parents who never see each other

and of Martha, the story of a dreamer, a story that reminds me too much of my daily struggle:

Martha llego de niña y sueña con estudiar [Martha came as a little girl and dreams of studying]

Pero se le hace dificil sin los papeles [But it’s a made difficult without papers]

Se quedan con los laureles los que nacieron aca [The laurels stay with those born here]

Pero ella nunca deja de luchar [But she never gives up fighting].

for the entire lyrics, visit the #Not1More campaign for keeping undocumented families together.

Because of the recent Boston bombings, details of an immigration bill have been cut short. The sneak peaks I’ve heard have come to me like a pack of ice for a wound that needs proper bandaging. And so, I have to remind myself that my society is one with rules and regulations. There is a procedure for everything. From living to dying.

Citizenship is a process.

A lot of the opponents to a pathway to citizenship, even one that takes 13 “short” years, argue that offering this choice rewards rule breakers. Rule breakers should be deported, fined, punished.

But I believe fear and abuse have been punishment enough. Being told you’re life is illegal is punishment enough. Being denied access to higher education is enough. And it angers me that any country–my America, where I’ve grown up–could ever belittle a human.

It is mind-blowing.

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.

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.