I did not always know that I was different. I came to this country at the age of one, so I consider myself to have had an American upbringing. I love everything there is to love about this country, from its culture and to its diversity. It is kind of hard to say I assimilated into American society because I was raised by it. At an early age, my parents would try to tell me that I was just a bit different than the other kids. They would stress to me the importance of staying out of trouble, but I didn’t understand the significance of it. The only moments I felt different as a child were when other kids would mention their relationships with their grandparents. Although I was young, I understood that I could not travel and visit my grandparents in Mexico, which made me feel like I was missing a piece of my childhood everyone else had.
I always understood that I was born in a different country, but I did not exactly understand the extent of the barriers I would have to face until high school. Teenage years are an exciting time for all adolescents as the transition into adulthood. While everyone was getting their driver’s licenses and filling out college applications, I began to realize I did not meet the requirements that these milestones demanded. It was then that I understood I was American in every way except on paper, and I realized the impediments of being an undocumented immigrant.
Like many others, I learned that higher education is the ultimate equalizer. It is the equalizer of rights, status, and opportunities. I’ll admit, I did not find my way or purpose right away. As a high school student, I was average in my academics and did the bare minimum. I did not fully understand the hardships and struggles that life would throw at me after high school, especially with my undocumented status.
After high school, I enrolled in my local community college. I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew it was a step in the right direction. Like many students continuing their education, I thought college was just a path towards getting a good job. I quickly realized I would face more barriers than the average student in order to attend college. To not be charged thousands of dollars in out-of-state tuition, I had to provide proof of a California High School Diploma and proof of lawful immigration status. Thankfully, I met the requirements to be considered an AB 540 student. Because I was eligible to be considered a California Resident, I was able to avoid unnecessary costs by paying in-state tuition. The AB 540 program along with the California DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act have allowed me to receive financial aid at the state level, regardless of my immigration status.
As I started to gain a better sense of direction throughout my community college career, I then decided the next step was moving on to a university. I was accepted to transfer to California State University, Fullerton in the fall of 2016. It was not only an exciting time, but also the toughest year of my life. My paternal grandfather passed away from illness in Mexico, precisely on my father’s birthday. Because of our immigration status, we were not able to be there with my grandpa in his last days nor were we able to attend his funeral. My grandfather stopped traveling to the U.S. when he was diagnosed with spinal cancer. It had been three years since the last time we saw him. I remember holding on to my father crying, feeling helpless, and sorry. This was without a doubt the worst time in my life, but even in the darkest of places there was a light. My grandfather’s passing served as the light to finding my purpose. It reminded me that I was different, but I saw the silver lining; my parents selflessly came to this country to give our family the opportunity to be successful. My parents made the ultimate sacrifice to leave their home so I could have a better future, so I made a promise to myself that my family’s suffering would not be left in vain. I realized the way to repay my parents for their bravery started with furthering my education because it is an instrument with the power to transform the lives of not only myself, but everyone around me.
My family has given me the best support anyone could ask for. We make a great team because we account for each other’s priorities. My parents and I split tuition, books, and cost of living. As a full-time student, I also have job that requires me to work about 35 hours a week. My mother and father work tirelessly, day and night, to ensure that all our basic necessities are met, all the while helping me fund my education. When it’s time to pay, I know I can count on them. I’m fortunate that they understand the investment they are making in me and how I will, ultimately, be able to pay them back with interest. There is a misconception that college will always require taking on burdensome debt and that students don’t have options to consider. The reality is that many public schools offer exceptional and affordable education, along with the many resources available to help students achieve academic success like reimbursement programs, a wide-range of scholarships, and community college tracks. While these programs often result in students taking on some debt, having a range of options empowers young people to make decisions that fit their needs. College is one of the hardest things you will ever do, but is also one of the most rewarding decisions you will ever make for yourself and your family. There are going to be days where you feel like you want to give up. You might fail an exam. You are going to have late nights. You are not going to understand a lecture. But, remember that education is a vehicle that can help you achieve your ambitions and aspirations.
Today, my future is in limbo. DACA has provided me with the ability to pursue my dreams by giving me the ability to work and be protected against deportation. In the past, multiple legislative bills have failed to pave the path towards citizenship for young Dreamers like myself. With DACA in jeopardy, lawmakers have introduced The Dream Act of 2017. This program serves as the most crucial component to my present and future success. DACA has allowed me to get a driver’s license, obtain a job, build credit, and attend college. These are all privileges that can be taken for granted and easily taken away from students who rely on DACA to pursue not only their higher education aspirations, but a medium towards socioeconomic stability for their families. Through all the uncertainty, I remain driven by my purpose. There is no success story without struggle and I believe, against all odds, that I will prosper.
Gustavo Lopez is an undocumented, undergraduate student at California State University, Fullerton where he studies Business Administration and Finance. After graduation, he plans to work for one of the Big Four accounting firms. In the future, he plans to attend law school to become a corporate finance attorney.