BERKELEY Meng So keeps the door to his small, windowless office open to the UC Berkeley students who show up with the problems they used to hide.
They have told him about commuting more than an hour to campus every day, about couch-surfing with friends, about being so hungry they attended public events serving food because they couldn't afford to buy what they needed.
So is coordinator of UC Berkeley's Undocumented Student Program, believed to be the first of its kind in the country. He's helped dozens of students find resources for tuition, housing, food, textbooks, medical care, legal issues and, equally important, emotional support.
"We're trying to create a sense of belonging," said So, his office walls covered with thank-you notes from students who found their first campus welcome there. "They have been told to be silent. There is a lot of shame and a lot of worry about deportation. We talk about everything in here."
The California Dream Act, two measures allowing undocumented students access to financial aid for state colleges and universities, passed two years ago. The first which took effect last year permitted students to get private scholarships. The second opened the door to public aid this year.
Together they have helped students pay for an education at UC Berkeley where tuition and housing this year cost up to $31,700 as well as at other state campuses.
But undocumented students say they still sometimes feel like outsiders with peers and professors. They sense resentment that they gained coveted admission spots.
They also wonder whether they will be able to get jobs after graduation, a question that may be answered by the sweeping immigration reform act now before Congress. The pending legislation includes a provision to allow a faster, five-year pathway to permanent residency for those who entered the country as children or earned a high school diploma here.
UC Berkeley's program, which now has a lending library for texts and a legal adviser from the law school, is already starting to be seen as a model, with public universities in Michigan and Texas making inquiries about it in the past year.
"We like to think here at Berkeley we are willing to lead in social justice issues," said Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who moved to open the center last year with private funding on the recommendation of a campus task force studying the issues facing undocumented students.
"The situation of this large number of undocumented students is obviously not restricted to Berkeley," Birgeneau said. "There is a crying need for these talented young people to get support."
Birgeneau said he came to understand the depth of their struggles only a few years ago after a high school teacher asked him to meet with some students.
"One told me how he came from a poor Chicano background, and his life dream was to go to Berkeley if he got admitted as a transfer," Birgeneau said.
"His parents had brought him here at (age) 5, and it had never before emerged that he was undocumented. He didn't know."
The student filled out financial aid forms but was denied. Devastated but determined to attend anyway, he registered and worked full time.
"It led to a nervous breakdown," said Birgeneau. "(The teacher) went to her friends and family and raised enough money to support him and another student also."
Birgeneau pushed for the passage of the state Dream Act and has lobbied members of Congress about federal reforms. His discussion of undocumented students a population that UC Berkeley estimated to include about 240 from 20 countries has won him both praise and plenty of hate mail, he said.
The students' stories are deeply personal to program coordinator So, who was born in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border after his parents fled the genocide and turmoil in Cambodia. His family moved to the United States when So was 2 years old, settling in Hayward, where his father became a doughnut baker.
So's legal status remained in limbo until he was in eighth grade, when he was able to become a naturalized citizen. The fourth of six children, he went to UC Berkeley.
His parents wanted him to be a doctor, but he was drawn to social welfare and public health and went on to graduate school at UCLA, where he studied higher education and organizational change. He then returned to Berkeley as a counselor in the Educational Opportunity Program, where he had once sought help. He splits his time between that office and his new one.
Student Grace Seo remembers dancing around the room when she found out she'd been admitted to UC Berkeley. She'd dreamed of going there ever since she moved to the Bay Area from Korea at age 11 and her father took her to visit the campus. Then, however, she started to panic about how to pay for it.
She emailed So to get information about the Dream Act, and he told her to call. She started to cry.
"It was the first time someone tried to help me," she said. "He said, 'How hard has it been for you? How hard has it been for your parents?' Even now I sort of choke up thinking about that."
So steered her toward an application for financial aid, which she received.
Although she now has a Social Security number, her documentation is still not finalized.
Another student, Larissa Espada, moved to the United States from Brazil six years ago knowing no English.
"When I got in, I didn't know where to go," Espada said. "I had money from a private scholarship, but it wasn't enough. It was so stressful. My parents were saying, 'Where will you live? What will you eat?' "
Her mother, a house cleaner, and father, a restaurant driver, could not afford to help her. A friend told her about the Undocumented Student Program, which helped her apply for aid. Espada is now a junior majoring in political science and living off-campus with three roommates.
Espada and Seo are interns at the program, helping build its website. Both say it was important to "come out" about their immigration status to reach others both those who are undocumented and those who don't know the obstacles they've faced.
"Lots of people still think we all hang out together, and we suck up all the resources," said Seo. "But we're not here to gain an education and leave."
"We're here for good," she added, "to be part of the community. For us to give anything back, this education is something we need."
Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.