Undocumented and Unwavering: An Orange County Community College Student Profile Feature Story

October 31, 2019
Monarch Butterfly on a flower

Enrique, who name has been changed to protect his identity, was three years old when he boarded a plane with his mother and sister en route to a country none of them had ever been to before. It was a journey filled with hope and fear and the sadness of knowing they were leaving behind family and all that was familiar.

Enrique’s family came to the U.S. for the same reason that immigrants across the globe have for hundreds of years—opportunity. After the closing of the Mexican factory where Enrique’s father worked, he was unable to find another job that could support his family of six. He crossed to the U.S. to find a job and his family followed soon after.

Sixteen years later, Enrique is finishing up some final GED coursework and taking classes in psychology at one of Orange County’s community colleges. This coming spring, he’ll enroll in Emergency Medical Technology (EMT) classes. Just like all students his age, he is eager for what the future will bring. Unlike most students, he is undocumented.

“Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve known I wanted a job where I was helping people,” says Enrique. “I thought of becoming a police officer or firefighter, but a friend was going through the EMT program and it sounded interesting. They’re technically the first responders, saving lives until the person can get to a hospital. Now, I’ve got my heart and soul focused on becoming an EMT.”

Eventually, Enrique will choose between the exceptional Orange County community college EMT and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) programs offered at Orange Coast College, Saddleback, and Santa Ana College. All of which will prepare him for a career on the front lines, protecting and caring for his community. 

Enrique knows the program will be tough. “There’s a lot of studying, getting terminology down,” he says.  But, he adds with confidence, “I know I have a knack for memorizing, and if I can make a good study guide and flash cards, I’ll be set.”

The Undocumented Student Education Gap

Each year, roughly 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high schools in the U.S.  Yet just a handful of them—anywhere from 7,000 to 13,000—enroll in college. The reasons are many, but a major one is that most states don’t qualify undocumented students for in-state tuition rates no matter how long they have lived there, and federal law doesn’t allow them to receive federal student aid (such as Pell Grants). For most, this extra financial burden makes attending college impossible.

But Enrique is one of the luckier ones—he’s enrolled in DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and he lives in California, which continues to push back against the Trump administration’s xenophobia and fear-mongering. More importantly, California is one of only 22 states that allows undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates.

As many of us know, community colleges not only provide an affordable alternative to more expensive, four-year colleges, but they’re also a proven pathway for certifications, degrees, and credentials in in-demand fields that lead not just to jobs, but to real careers. For undocumented students, this is particularly true.

“We work hard to develop a space that’s safe for Dreamers and undocumented students, where they can ask questions about their applications and financial aid, and where they can understand their rights,” says Cindy Partida, M.S., student services coordinator at Santiago Canyon College. In California, “we recognize the diversity of our community,” continues Partida. “We want all students to have access to education and we support their efforts to get a good job.”

But getting the word out to students with challenging immigration statuses isn’t easy. Undocumented families are so accustomed to being secretive about their immigration status that both parents and students are often afraid to ask questions that might reveal too much. This means the questions they need to ask never get asked.

“Speaking about their immigration status is like coming out of the shadows,” says Partida, who is quick to assert that it doesn’t have to be like this. “We embrace these students and build an understanding of the academic process and the resources available to them. Plus, we provide ally training for staff and faculty so they can be aware of the issues that students face. We want current and prospective students to know that this college is a safe space.”

Providing counseling services is also important, says Partida. “Besides attending class, these students are often working full-time, since they are legally allowed to work and their parents aren’t. They’re family breadwinners. And they’re worried about the rest of the family’s status, so that adds to their stress.”

Like Enrique, many have left behind family in their country of origin and can’t go back to visit. For example, Enrique explains that his grandparents are sick and his mother is extremely distressed that she can’t travel to Mexico to help them. When his dad’s parents died, his father was unable to go to their funerals.

Regardless of these challenges, Enrique continues to forge ahead, and despite getting up at 5 a.m. every morning to commute to campus by bus, Enrique is quick to exclaim, “College is amazing!”

In addition to his classes, he’s on the cross-country team and is an active member of the United Students for Equal Education, a student club supporting undocumented students. He participates in panel discussions informing high school students what his college has to offer and how it can help them financially and with other resources.

“Once I chose my school, I decided to see everything it had to offer,” says Enrique. “I made the right choice—there is so much here, and I’ve made so many friends from my team and classes. They’ve become a second family.”

At the same time, Enrique’s parents are doing their best to find the opportunity they came here in search of. His mother worked as a housekeeper for a hotel until recently and his father is a bicycle mechanic in small shop. But because Enrique is going to college, his chances of success are more promising. As long as he renews his DACA status every two years, he will be legally allowed to work in his field.

“It’s very hurtful that some people discriminate against Latinos and everything going on politically… But I’m proud of where I came from, and my parents are very supportive and proud of me,” says Enrique.

And it’s no wonder they’re proud. By this time next year, Enrique will have completed his education and should be gainfully employed as a licensed EMT, supporting himself, saving lives, and building a better future for his family and his community.