The New York State Youth Leadership Council gives undocumented youth a platform to raise their voices and humanize a debate that’s dominated by myths and stereotypes. Here, Berenice tells her story of struggling to excel as a young scholar. Seeking to move onto the next stage of her academic career, she’s realized that her credentials are flawless on paper–except for the papers she lacks.
My name is Berenice and I am an undocumented graduate of Columbia University. I got my bachelor’s degree in May 2010. To be honest up until the end of April I was not looking forward to graduation. Rather than being excited I was afraid. For four years Columbia had provided me with a safe and protective environment. However, after graduation all of that protection would be gone. To make matters even worse, even though I had made it this far I would not be able to accept a lab technician position that had been offered to me by my mentor. This was the perfect job for a recent college graduate. They offered a decent salary, health insurance, research experience, and the opportunity to work alongside world renowned scientists. Although I really wanted to accept that job, my legal status prevented me from doing so.
There were many times when I considered telling my mentor the real reason why I could not accept the offer, but I was afraid that he wouldn’t understand my situation and that he would be upset at me and force me to quit the internship. I ended up lying to him and everybody else at the lab. I had kept the truth about my immigration status a secret for eight years and I was afraid of sharing it with anybody else, including my closest friends. After a while lying becomes a lot easier than telling the truth. I feared that if my friends found out that I was undocumented they might get upset because I lied to them. Moreover, I didn’t want them to judge me or my parents for bringing me to the U.S. There were many times when I simply cried in my room. I had made it so far and yet I saw that my dreams were crumbling before my eyes. I even began to think that my degree was worthless. If I hadn’t found the NYSYLC at the moment when I did, I don’t know how I would’ve been able to make it through.
After meeting such admirable and strong human beings I realized that I too had to become stronger and that I had to face my reality and the truth that had I had chosen to hide for so long. I eventually gathered enough courage and amidst a pool of tears I told my friends about my situation. After listening to my story they simply hugged me and told me that this didn’t change anything. I was still the same person I was before. One of them even said that, if anything, she now saw me as her hero. Telling my friends the truth was one of the best decisions I have ever made as they became a great support system as the weeks went by and graduation got closer. They listened to me, comforted me, and gave me words of encouragement. Thanks to them I was able to enjoy my last days as an undergrad to the fullest. When graduation day arrived I tried to enjoy it as much as possible for them and for my parents, who were happy to see me become the first college graduate in my family.
A few weeks after graduation I decided to tell my mentor the truth. After hearing my story he told me that he had a lot of respect for hard working people like my parents and that I should be proud of them. In addition, he said that he would try to help me out as much as he could. He also confirmed what had been in my mind for the past few months; that in order for me to reach the next level of my professional career I had to consider going to a graduate school outside of the U.S. Obtaining a Master’s or a PhD in the sciences from a U.S. graduate school would be hard because funding for these programs comes from various sources that may or may not be from the government. In addition, for some fellowships students are required to work as teaching assistants, which means that I’d need to have work authorization. Furthermore, I would never be able to do field work research abroad or travel to scientific conferences. Finally, at the end of the day I would be at the same exact place where I am right now: unemployed.
My dream is to become a scientist who can contribute to the creation of successful conservation programs across the world. I want to be the first professional in my family and become a role model for my young cousins who are already looking up to me. I also dream of seeing the world one day. Many months after graduation, I came to the conclusion that my dream was bigger than the U.S. and that I should not let an immigration, political, social or economic system stop me from achieving it. That’s why I decided to apply to three prestigious and highly competitive European master’s programs. In each program only 1% to 3% of international students are accepted with a scholarship. A few days ago I found out that I was accepted to all three programs with a full-tuition scholarship.
My family is ecstatic. When I told my mom the news she started crying and saying how proud she and my dad were. My 10 year-old cousin, who is also undocumented, asked me what he had to do to be smart as me. He made me promise that if I ever go to the England I will visit Abbey Road, which is where his favorite band, the Beatles, recorded their 11th album. My brother told me of all of the soccer matches I’ll be able to see. With tears in his eyes my step-grandfather said to me that the world had now opened up to me. The moment I step out of the U.S. I will have to face a 10-year ban that will prevent me from re-entering the U.S. and from seeing my family. This is a sacrifice that sadly I will have to make in order to pursue my dreams. My family understands this and they know that I can’t let this opportunity go by.
I’ve been able to come this far thanks to the help of a lot of people who have helped me become stronger. Whether it was by offering me a place to stay after graduation so that I could live in NYC and finish my internship, by giving me words of encouragement and professional advice, by helping me edit my applications, or simply by supporting me and believing in me, these individuals have helped me get closer to achieving my dreams. Without them I would have been lost. This experience has made me realize that in spite of all of the hatred, discrimination, and dehumanization that we face there are good people out there who understand us and are willing to help us. We are not alone in our struggle.
Being undocumented has been full of difficulties, challenges, and sadness. However, it has helped me become the person that I am today: someone who will fight against the system that tries to prevent us from fulfilling our dreams. No matter what difficulties I have to face in the future I know I have a great support system backing me up. I will prove to everyone who has ever doubted what undocumented students are capable of achieving how wrong they are.
My name is Berenice and I am undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic and I will never give up.