AfterWord: Beyond Status

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A Golden Door Scholar on life as an undocumented student

Do you want to know the harshest word I have ever heard? Illegal. It is a hurtful and discriminatory label, and it is one that I cannot escape. Some say I should grow thicker skin, but the real issue is not my sensitivity. This part of my identity that carries so many negative associations in society affects every part of my life and limits my true potential. And, worst of all, I have no control over it.

Every year, around 65,000 undocumented high school students graduate in the United States. Out of these graduates, only 5-10 percent nationwide continue their education, largely because they do not qualify for financial aid or loans from the government. Moreover, some institutions do not admit students without legal documentation. In North Carolina, only 2.5 percent make it into college. I am among the lucky 2.5 percent.

I came to America when I was nine years old because my family lost everything when a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck El Salvador; because a dear friend was raped by gang members as she walked to school, which was two hours away from our small village; because she was not the first, nor the last; because my parents wanted to give me my best chance. Though it seems logical for parents to want the best for their children, life in America for undocumented individuals comes with a heavy price—judgment, hardships and even hatred.

As the statistics show, higher education for undocumented youth is nearly impossible to attain. In high school, I was the valedictorian and leader in many extracurricular activities. Nonetheless, none of my accomplishments guaranteed a college education. Furthermore, many people, including teachers and neighbors, automatically set me up for failure not only because I am a Latina, but also because of my status. Even my family had low expectations for me. To them, learning English and getting my high school diploma was good enough.

With all of these limitations and barriers, I was terrified I would become just like the other undocumented students who failed to go to college to pursue their dreams. However, while the majority of people in my life had low expectations for me, a few people did not turn me away, in spite of my status. These teachers and peers became my mentors and my courage. Their supporting words were louder than all the negativity around me. Because they believed in my dreams, I believed in myself.

One of the most fearful periods of my life was my senior year in high school. While everyone was excited to apply for college, I was anxious and desperate. My work ethic and accomplishments gave me no comfort because my status carried more weight than any of them. Then, something wonderful happened. President Obama issued an executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants who entered the United States under the age of 16 to remain in the country, exempted from deportation.

This policy gave Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias (in my opinion, the coolest person on Earth), the liberty to create the Golden Door Scholarship, which partners with colleges to provide full-ride scholarships to undocumented students. I was the first Golden Door Scholar to come to Davidson in 2013. Today, there are three more here. Ric Elias has helped more than 30 undocumented students go to colleges like Davidson, Yale, Wake Forest, UNC Chapel Hill, and NC State.

Without the Golden Door Scholarship, I do not think that I would have become a Wildcat. Words cannot express my gratitude. I have been given an opportunity that other students like me have been denied. However, my status remains a barrier for my dreams, as I still do not know if I will be able to go to Physician’s Assistant school. I can only hope for the best.

I was never comfortable telling people about my status—that hasn’t changed. The reason I am telling you is because I want to be a voice for others that do not have the privilege to tell their stories. I want to give them courage to overcome their self-doubt and inspire them to rise above low expectations. We deserve a shot at our dreams.

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Judith Rosales Rivas '17

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