Undocumented students let themselves be known

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A freshman in college, she’s just like any other student. Her smile and warm disposition gives off a sense of confidence, of knowing where she wants to go.

Rosa Lopez, 18, is no different from any other student at Cal State Fullerton.

However, unlike the majority of other students, Lopez’s course to a higher education was not a straight line.

She is part of an emerging student population who are letting themselves be known.

Lopez is an undocumented student.

Lopez arrived in the United States when she was 4 years old.

She recalls the big change of being surrounded by Spanish speakers, then being thrust into an environment where communication became an issue.

Growing up, being immersed in English helped Lopez learn the new language.

She not only learned English to help with her homework, but also spoke to her teachers and explained her family’s situation.

Her mother used any available resource at hand to help out her daughters. She would take them to the library and got them tutors at a young age to ensure that they would not be left behind.

“My mom made us read books, even though we didn’t understand anything … about the books,” Lopez said.  “We practiced pronouncing words in order to have a normal conversation.”

While living in South Los Angeles, one teacher that stood out early on in Lopez’s life was her kindergarten and first grade teacher, Mr. Brooks.

“We were such a big impact in her life, that she started learning Spanish in order to communicate with us,” Lopez said. “She had the patience to sit down with us and try to communicate little by little.”

Growing up, Lopez was oblivious to her legal status.

Lopez said she didn’t know she came here illegally because her parents never mentioned it when she was little.

When she got to high school, Lopez became more aware of the perception people had toward her.

At first Lopez did not want to reveal herself as undocumented or “illegal” because “you stand out,” she said.

“It’s a tough place to be in, it’s a very tough and lonely place to be in,” said Carmen Curiel, interim director of Diversity Education Initiatives at CSUF. “There are a lot of students who don’t share that part of their undergraduate or graduate experience. They go through it by themselves and it’s really, really hard.”

A few undocumented students attended Lopez’s high school, which was named after the late California Assembly member Marco Antonio Firebaugh, who authored Assembly Bill 540 in 2001.

Out of about 30 people in her class, she was the only undocumented student.

Lopez is eligible to benefit from AB 540, a state law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at higher educations institutions.

Andres Garcia / Daily Titan
Andres Garcia / Daily Titan

At CSUF alone, the difference between in-state tuition and out of state tuition is more than $10,000 according to the Cal State University website.

The California Dream Act allows AB 540 students to receive private scholarships and institutional financial aid such as state university grants and Cal Grants.

Lopez has not declared a major yet, but is thinking about working for her Bachelor of Science degree in children and adolescent development.

She said she wants to work specifically on developmental issues in children. She then plans to go for her master’s degree in physical therapy.

Lopez’s mother had a big impact on her choosing this field.

Her mother worked cleaning houses and worked with a family with six children, two of which were adopted, handicapped and came from an abusive household.

“I feel like helping them is my major goal,” Lopez said. “From all the people out here they are the ones that need the most help.”

While figuring things out for herself, Lopez continues to think about helping others.

She helps other undocumented students fill out their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application.

During the fall 2013 semester, Lopez received the “Mexican American Dream Scholarship” from Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica (COFEM), a nonprofit creates opportunities for Latino immigrants.

Carlos Reyes, CSUF alumnus and program coordinator for COFEM, has worked closely with Lopez and can relate to the challenges this student population faces.

Reyes sees this issue as affecting everyone, not just the individual or their families, but the state as a whole.

“If we don’t do anything at this point to create a more educated workforce, eventually we are going to be struggling,” Reyes said.

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