*EDITOR’S NOTE: The names and some specific circumstances of the students in this story have been changed to protect their anonymity.
By Diego Abeloos | Illustration Kyleigh Metzger
Victor, a second-year aerospace engineering major, has his sights set on Mars. Over the past few years, he’s watched as private companies like SpaceX have reignited public excitement for off-planet exploration. He hopes to someday work for one of those companies, helping develop the rockets that will get mankind one step closer to the stars.
Unfortunately, Victor’s dreams face an uncertain future because of a journey taken 26 years ago much closer to home. He and his family came to the United States as undocumented immigrants when he was just 2 years old.
“It’s frustrating … I want to work on those missions but there’s a lot of restrictions,” he says. “I can’t really work on anything having to do with space, because I’m not a U.S. citizen.”
Katherine Zevallos Pastor has heard plenty of stories like this from undocumented students at Cal Poly as the inaugural coordinator of the university’s new Dream Center. “One of the biggest obstacles undocumented students face is simply not knowing what their future has in store,” she said. “Some will also face restrictions on where they can work and what careers they can pursue because of their status, even with a Cal Poly degree.”
Established by Student Affairs in the spring of 2017, the center offers a range of programs and services to support undocumented students, and those from mixed-status families, as they pursue their academic goals. The center also provides a safe space where undocumented students can find their own sense of community, or in many cases, even just a sympathetic ear.
“The undocumented students I’ve met at the center are here for the same reasons as other students – they want to pursue their education and build a better future for themselves,” said Pastor.
But while their motivations may be similar, every undocumented student’s story is unique – as are the hurdles they encounter in the face of an unresolved national debate over the fate of this vulnerable community.
A NETWORK OF SUPPORT
The Dream Center is one component of a support network that exists on campus for undocumented students. Pastor said that the center focuses on providing education and resources to meet the students’ unique needs, including referrals to financial aid opportunities, references for legal assistance, academic advising and creating connections to peers and on-campus allies.
She added that one common and ongoing need is financial assistance, which remains one of the biggest challenges undocumented students face. Although some are eligible for state financial aid through a state law called the California Dream Act, federal aid such as Pell Grants are strictly off-limits.
“They work incredibly hard for their education, and they want to contribute to their communities and society as a whole,” said Pastor, noting the extreme sacrifices undocumented students must often make just to make ends meet while getting an education.
Sebastian, an animal science student who has received some protection as an undocumented immigrant under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, recalled working a full-time graveyard shift as a janitor at a Southern California hospital while taking up to 20 units each term at community college so that he could transfer to Cal Poly.
“It was a very tough time,” said Sebastian, who still works 30 hours per week while studying full-time as a Cal Poly student. “I would go to work at 11 p.m., get done at 7:30 a.m. and then go to class at 8:30 or 9. I’d sleep anywhere from three to five hours.”
Cal Poly’s support network also includes the UndocuAlly Working Group, formed by faculty and staff members in 2015 to provide information and resources to undocumented students.
“Many of us throughout the university were getting questions from students, who were looking for resources to support undocumented students and students in mixed-status families,” said Jane Lehr, chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, and an associate professor of ethnic studies. “As we attempted to find the person or place on campus that knew about these resources and could provide direct support to students, it became clear to us that there really wasn’t that person or place.”
One of the group’s primary goals is to grow the campus’ network of allies through a series of trainings for students, staff, faculty and the surrounding community to create greater awareness about issues concerning undocumented students.
In addition, there’s the Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education (RISE) student club, which offers peer-to-peer information sharing about available services and support for all undocumented students. The group raised approximately $9,000 in private donations earlier this year so students could renew their DACA status before the March 5 deadline set by the federal government to end the program.
Samuel, a RISE student member, noted that there was plenty of uncertainty about the future of undocumented students shortly after the 2016 presidential election. As such, he felt the need to stifle excitement over an internship offer he received at the time from a major tech company.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’ve worked so hard to get an internship that only one percent of all students who apply actually get,’” he said. “Now there’s something that’s out of my control, because of a piece of paper I don’t have, that can maybe take that away from me? It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”
Isabella, a fifth-year transfer student who first came to the United States at the age of 6, is cautious about sharing her story with anyone outside of her close friends. She’s also guarded about her future, pointing to the federal government’s plan to rescind the DACA program.
“That announcement helped me see the reality that anything can be taken away,” said Isabella, whose family remained in the U.S. after the expiration of their work visas when her sibling became terminally ill. “My DACA status expires in two years. Will I be able to use my degree? I’ve already been let go of two jobs because my new DACA card didn’t arrive in time.”
Despite uncertainties, Victor said it’s in his nature to remain endlessly optimistic. His main focus, regardless of what lies ahead, is to provide for his longtime girlfriend and their 5-year-old son.
“As soon as she got pregnant, it was like, ‘wow, I’ve got to do something better to provide for them,’’’ he said. “My son is one of the reasons I push myself.”
As for Isabella, she hopes compassion and common ground will win out in the ongoing debate and fate of undocumented immigrants – including those at Cal Poly.
“Although we all have different lives, we all want the same thing,” she said. “We all want to be successful. We all want to better the world. We all want to feel secure and feel like we have a promising future.”