Growing up as an undocumented queer boy in Los Angeles, I realized I didn’t fit in at an early age. I preferred looking at art to engaging in gang violence, and dreamed of pursuing a higher education. “It’s my only way out,” I internalized. But the higher education system didn’t seem to want me.
It was 2008 and I was graduating from high school along with approximately 65,000 undocumented students in California. Bright-eyed and a little delusional, I thought I could afford UC Santa Barbara. So I enrolled and found myself in a terrifying financial situation.
Even though undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition and are eligible for state and institutional financial aid, they are unable to qualify for federal student loans. This leaves us with an additional estimated financial aid gap of $3,000 to $6,000 compared to other students with similar financial need, just because of our immigration status.
I found myself constantly worrying about how I was going to make my next tuition payment. I was sick with guilt, asking my mother to support me.
In the third and final quarter of my first year, I realized I couldn’t afford school. I was given a 10-day notice to make a payment or drop my classes. I was shattered.
Determined to make it through and fearful of the shame of dropping out midyear, I sought the help of high school teachers and friends from Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success, a student-run support group for undocumented students at UCSB. My mother and sister went to a local radio station in Los Angeles to share my story and ask for donations.
For the next 10 days, I spent my time putting together a Facebook page telling my story, talking to donors, going around campus collecting money from fellow students and feeling completely grateful at the increasing dollar amount in my bank account. With the help of so many generous people, I raised around $3,000 for my tuition. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
In my conversations with friends and colleagues who have graduated and emerged with tremendous loan debt, I’m continually disheartened by how inaccessible our education system is to low-income students, especially first-generation students of color.
The only light at the end of the tunnel is Senate Bill 1210 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, which would create the California DREAM Loan program for undocumented students, so that more of us who get into college can afford to complete our education.
California legislators agree that providing more financial aid options to undocumented students is a step that needs to be taken. Now my dream of graduating from a California university, and the dreams of thousands of other students, is in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown as the bill sits on his desk for his signature or a veto.
California has so much untapped talent, and so many aspiring youths. Yet many continue to struggle and fall under the beast of financial need.
This can change, if the governor decides to act.