Undocumented student fights for dream

In Features

Brenda Lopez, 21, thought she would never attend college.

William Camargo / Daily Titan

The possibility was always too far away, unreachable.

She knew it would be something she would have to fight for, to strive for.

Fast-forward a few years and Lopez is not only on her way toward obtaining her Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies, but she is also planning to continue her education in the hopes of obtaining a Ph.D.

Neither budget cuts nor her undocumented student status have stopped Lopez from attaining an education at Cal State Fullerton.

“At first college wasn’t even an option I thought about. But after I was motivated and inspired to do so, the problem was finding a way to pay my way through college,” said Lopez.

The lack of a social security number prevents her from qualifying to apply to jobs or to any federal government assistance for students, such as FAFSA.

In total Lopez has been able to raise $34,300 to pay for her education despite her lack of accessibility to federal funds.

Federal funds can award students in higher education with grants or low interest loans to help pay for their education expenses.

“For students like me, the hard part is finding ways to pay for college. As an undocumented student I do not have a Social Security number to allow me to apply to jobs or even to apply to the FAFSA,” Lopez said.

Lopez does receive some help through her AB 540 student status, which she says allows her to pay the same university fees a California resident does.

“Otherwise, I would have to pay the fees out of state students pay, and those are way higher,” Lopez said.

In order to qualify as an AB 540 student, students must show they attended a California high school for three years.

They must also show that they have or will graduate from a California high school or attained a GED.

In addition, they must also be registered or enrolled at an institution of higher education in California.

“I had to show I attended a California high school and that I got my high school diploma in order to be considered an AB 540 student,” Lopez said.

Lopez was born in Mexico and came to the United States when she was 3 years old with her mother and older sister.

“I was very little when I came to the U.S. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that I didn’t like anything. The food was different, even the air smelled different,” she said.

Her first experiences with education did not happen until age five when her mother enrolled her in kindergarten.

“I felt in my own little world back then because everyone spoke English. I mostly learned everything from the teacher’s assistant because she spoke Spanish,” Lopez said.

Her mother always stressed the importance of education, but it was not until she met Andra Schwartz, Ph.D., that she began to consider a future in higher education.

Schwartz was Lopez’ seventh and eighth grade AVID and English teacher.

“She’s the one who really inspired me to want to attend college. She’s also the reason I decided I wanted to be a teacher,” Lopez said.

Other role models for Lopez include her older sister Lorena, 23, who attended CSUF and graduated with a degree in human services in December 2011.

Although Lorena has graduated and has a college degree, she continues to work at a restaurant as server.

Despite the uncertainty of whether or not the attained degree would result in a career, sister Lorena still motivated Lopez to attend college.

Lorena said that the best piece of advice she ever gave her sister was to “get involved and get good scholarships.”

That is just what Lopez did.

“I became involved on campus beginning in my freshman year of college,” Lopez said.

She said she thinks back to her four years at CSUF and begins to call out various acronyms of all the groups she has participated in.

In total, Lopez has been a member of 11 on-campus organizations.

Lopez also actively participates in activities and events put on by other organizations.

Along with her involvement on campus, Lopez has been active in funding her education through scholarships.

“I just started applying to all of the scholarships as I possibly could,” Lopez said.

Although her pool of scholarships was cut short because she was not eligible to apply for the FAFSA, Lopez still applied for more than a hundred of them.

“From my senior year up to now I have applied to over a hundred scholarships,” Lopez said.

She explains that applying for scholarships can be very time-consuming.

The competitive nature of many of these scholarships often led to failed results.

“It wasn’t rare to open my email and find a response to a scholarship application that read, ‘There was a large pool of applicants, thank you for applying.’ But I just kept applying anyway,” Lopez said.

In the end, Lopez’s determination paid off.

Lopez said through about six scholarships, including the AVID Scholarship and the J.E.D Foundation scholarship, she has been able to raise $24,100 to pay for school.

She has also worked on campus in positions that allow her to receive a stipend pay that is considered a form of scholarship allowance.

Her work as an orientation leader and translator raised $3,000. Lopez’s current position as a member of the Titan Student Center Governing Board provided her with $7,200.

Those scholarships have made it possible for Lopez to reach four years in higher education and an expected graduation in May 2013.

Close friend Wendy Bonilla, 21, said Lopez tries to get the most from her education.

“(She is) focused, goal oriented, hardworking, and always trying to get the most out of her education,” Bonilla said.

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