How To Get Your Degree, From 3 Undocumented Students
Lizbeth Tapia planned to go to Cal State Fullerton, the public university that was closest to her home in Anaheim. But when she marked on her application that she was in the country on a tourist visa, she was classified as a non-resident student, which meant she'd have to pay out-of-state tuition. At the time, in 2010, that meant more than $13,000 per academic year if she attended full-time, about three times the price of in-state tuition.
"There was no way that we could afford it," Tapia said. Her parents, who had immigrated from Mexico four years earlier with Tapia and her sister, both worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat.
Assembly Bill 540, passed in 2001, allows California students who lack legal federal immigration status to pay in-state tuition at the state's public colleges and universities. The law applies to students who have been enrolled in school in California for at least three years prior to applying to college.
Tapia arrived in the U.S. as a freshman in high school, so she should have qualified. But she didn't know that. "I did not have any guidance in filling out that form," Tapia said of her college application.
Many students eventually figure out what they need to succeed in higher education, but not because they learned about it in high school, or because it was written down in any official handbook. Instead, they succeed because they uncover resources and help that exist if only you know where to look.
The students featured in our ongoing Hidden Curriculum series successfully navigated higher education while faced with particular challenges because of their background and life circumstances.
California has offered increasing support to undocumented students like Tapia over the past two decades. But awareness of that support has, in some students' experience, been slow to catch on among those tasked with helping young people navigate difficult college and career choices.
By the time a counselor realized Tapia's mistake, Tapia remembers, the counselor told her it was too late. She encouraged Tapia to attend community college instead, and then transfer.
Tapia's parents assured her they'd figure out how to help pay for it, so she enrolled at Santa Ana College. It felt huge.
"I was, like, clueless as hell. I didn't know where to start. I felt so little whenever I stepped into this college," Tapia remembered during an interview on her former campus. "But I still felt so big because I was making that big step."
Working Student Life
At Santa Ana College, Tapia was grouped with a cohort of students from her high school and other nearby schools. They attended orientation together. They had the same counselor, and they helped each other figure out their new world. Tapia said it was kind of like having a gym partner who makes sure you show up for workouts. "You keep each other accountable," she said.
Tapia studied while simultaneously working a string of full-time jobs, first under-the-table at the swap meet and a restaurant, then later at an office.
"So pretty much I never had what students normally have at school, which is like, just sit back and do your homework," she said. "It was like, go to class, grab your books, either run to get the bus and then you do the homework in the bus. And then in my case, it was go to work afterwards."
In the meantime, she and her younger sister, Elizabeth, applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave them authorization to work in the U.S. and temporary protection from deportation.
Tapia applied again to Cal State Fullerton in 2014 as a transfer student and got accepted. She wasn't sure how she'd pay for it, but she had heard that undocumented students like her were now eligible for financial aid.
The California Dream Act, passed in 2011, allows undocumented students to apply for state financial aid, including a Cal Grant that pays full tuition and fees for low-income students at University of California and California State University campuses. Undocumented students also qualify for institutional grants and scholarships and fee waivers at community colleges.
For Tapia, just inquiring about financial aid as an undocumented student was hard. She asked to get off work early so she could go to Cal State Fullerton's financial aid office to ask for help.
"I guess that was the hardest part because you get into this emotional rollercoaster," Tapia said. "This is when I have to explain what this means, you know, because most of the people that were at [the financial aid] office, the only thing that they knew is FAFSA. So they didn't know anything about the actual California Dream Act."
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's the form that students have to fill out to qualify for federal grants and loans, as well as many scholarships and private aid. But you have to have a social security number to apply. Undocumented students in California — including DACA recipients — instead fill out the California Dream Act Application for state aid.
Tapia wanted solid guidance this time. "One of my biggest fears with the whole financial thing is because I had screwed up my first application," she said. "That cost me a setback for my career. … I would have started at Cal State Fullerton right away."
The financial aid office found someone who was knowledgeable about the California Dream Act and could help Tapia fill out the form. She submitted it and got a state Cal Grant to help pay for the rest of her degree.
Tapia graduated in 2017 with a B.A. in business. She now works in human resources for a small firm, owns her own condo with her sister, and is thinking about going back to school to get her master's degree.
The visibility of undocumented students, and the resources to help them get into and through college, have increased substantially since Tapia first started college. But she says she's not bitter about her difficult journey, she's just happy she got it done.
"I have learned to kind of let go of certain things and say, 'OK, this is the path that I probably have to take at this particular moment. And I'll figure out if this is the right one,'" Tapia said.
A Rising Tide Of Support For Undocumented Students
California has the largest number of undocumented college students of any state, an estimated 94,000 in 2019, based on data from the American Community Survey analyzed by New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. (That number has likely dropped, as undocumented students have been among the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Starting two decades ago with AB 540, a series of bills and college-level initiatives have turned California into one of the most supportive states when it comes to providing access to higher education for undocumented students. Resource centers for undocumented students now exist on most public college and university campuses. A 2019 law requires community colleges and California State University campuses to, at a minimum, designate a special liaison for undocumented students to help streamline access to financial aid, social services and academic and professional development opportunities.
The state financial aid commission also recently launched a program that provides small grants — up to $3,000 per year — to undocumented students in exchange for community service. California's new College Corps is also open to undocumented students who qualify for AB 540, and provides $10,000 in exchange for 450 hours of service work.
Perhaps the biggest support is in the form of Cal Grants. And yet only around half of all estimated undocumented college students in 2020 applied for a Cal Grant under the California Dream Act, and less than one-quarter of them were awarded a Cal Grant.
"So a lot of students are not finding out about the availability of financial support or they're not qualifying for it if they apply," said Katharine Gin, co-founder and executive director of the organization Immigrants Rising.
A Smoother Ride For Tapia's Younger Sister
If Lizbeth Tapia struggled to navigate college, and especially, with how to pay for it, her younger sister Elizabeth, four years her junior, had a much smoother path. "My sister and my story are two completely different stories," the younger Tapia said. "And that's mainly because of resources. Like, let's get honest, she didn't have the resources that I had."
For one thing, Elizabeth said, by the time she was in junior high, they had moved to a better, safer neighborhood. Elizabeth's junior high had a GearUp college readiness program that helped her and her classmates prepare for and plan for college.
Once in high school, she participated in the AVID college readiness program and was chosen to attend the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project conference in Sacramento. The students were housed on the California State University, Sacramento campus and one of the conference days was dedicated to learning about college and careers.
"It helped me to identify who I was and where I could go when I thought maybe those spaces were closed to me," Elizabeth said.
In fact, 40% of California Latinos between ages 25 and 64 have attended college compared to 28% a decade ago, according to the Campaign for College Opportunity. But that's still the lowest level of college attendance of any major racial or ethnic group, and about half the college attendance rate of the state's white and Asian American and Pacific Islander adults.
Elizabeth got into one of the country’s most prestigious public schools, UC Berkeley. But UC Santa Barbara offered a better financial aid package so she enrolled there instead. Grants and scholarships paid for most of her schooling, except for a $5,000 loan she said she took out freshman year. (The average student loan debt for Californians who graduated with a bachelor's degree last year was $21,125, according to The Institute for College Access and Success.)
Like her sister, she worked, sometimes full-time. But unlike when the elder Tapia started college, Elizabeth had access to the University of California's work-study program as a DACA recipient (DACA recipients are not eligible for federal work-study). She worked in one of the campus cafeterias, eventually moving up through the ranks to supervisor, while also taking outside jobs in retail and fast food when she needed more money.
Elizabeth loved her college experience. "What college did for me was open up a world where you're putting names to things, like all your experiences," she said. It's where she began to fully come to terms with, and embrace, her identity as an immigrant and a DACA recipient. This included the unfortunate fact that, unlike many of her college friends, she couldn't study abroad.
"I was angry," Elizabeth said. "I had the grades. I had the drive, I had everything, you know, but based on my [immigration] status, I couldn't do it and I was so upset.
"Once I finally came to terms with my identity as an immigrant and just my situation in life, I think that's when I was like, 'Well, this is me and I got to enjoy it.'"
'Know-How Is Missing'
Vanessa Delgado, a UC Irvine PhD candidate who studies how immigrant families broker life in the U.S., said children often can't count on support from their parents for navigating the logistics of a college education.
"The values are there in terms of really caring for education, wanting their children to do well, but oftentimes that know-how is missing," said Delgado, who's interviewed dozens of children of immigrants for her research.
She said older siblings like Lizbeth often muddle through college, paving the way for their younger siblings to have an easier, more successful experience, and "not just getting into college, but also just staying in college," Delgado said, helping with things like how to study and take notes during a lecture.
In the Tapia sisters' case, the younger sister, Elizabeth, got ample help on her pathway to higher education through college readiness programs. But she did take inspiration from Lizbeth.
"You're my role model," Elizabeth told her sister across a metal table in the quad where Lizbeth's college journey started. "Hearing my sister's story, how she struggled, I'm so proud of her because I don't know if I would have been able to do that."
Stumbling Upon The California Dream Act
Shirleen Achieng was the only one in her family not legally living in the U.S. Her mother had left her native Kenya to study in Canada when Achieng was young, and then, years later, applied for refugee status and brought her daughter from Kenya to live with her.
Soon after, Achieng's mother was accepted into a graduate program at Michigan State University. She crossed the U.S.-Canadian border with Achieng and her two younger siblings, both born to an American father. But at the border, agents held the family up — for some eight hours, Achieng remembers — because Achieng's Canadian immigration paperwork was still in limbo and she didn't have a U.S. visa.
They finally let the family through, but when it came time to renew Achieng's Canadian visa, her mother decided it was better not to go back to Canada and risk getting held up at the border again, or worse, having border agents tell her Achieng couldn't cross.
So Achieng started middle school in Michigan as an undocumented student. "I didn't know what it meant," Achieng said, "I just knew I don't have papers in this country." Her mother encouraged her to keep this information quiet. She knew people in Michigan who had been deported.
The family moved to California a few years later, and when it came time for Achieng to think about her post-high school plans, there was no doubt she'd go to college. "[My mom] being educated herself, she always knew that we were going to go to school. She didn't really know how, she just said, 'apply, apply,' even to Ivy Leagues," Achieng said.
"Her mindset is very academic, and that tends to be a lot of Black immigrants, African immigrants, because especially if you come from poverty, school is flagged as the way out, like this is how you can better yourself," Achieng said.
But she didn't tell any of her high school counselors or teachers that she was undocumented — Achieng said that, at the time, she didn't even know the term. "The language that I knew was that I didn't have papers," she said.
Achieng also didn't feel comfortable disclosing to anyone that she was not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. She, like Lizbeth Tapia, applied to colleges as an international student.
I had literally prayed, went on my knees, like, 'please God, they have to approve this.
Achieng came across the California Dream Act by chance while researching scholarships for international students. "When I read the requirements, I thought 'this sounds like me' … so I thought, 'OK, let me just apply for this.'"
Achieng said no one at her Catholic high school in Bakersfield had brought up the California Dream Act when she and fellow classmates were working on their college and financial aid applications. "Maybe people just weren't as aware," she said. "I think also it was just my environment where [being undocumented] is something to keep quiet."
UC Irvine offered Achieng a generous financial aid package. But she first had to fill out an AB 540 application, including documentation of her three years at a California high school, and sign an affidavit. When they finally approved her in-state tuition and grant money, she couldn't believe it.
"I had literally prayed, went on my knees, like, 'please God, they have to approve this,'" Achieng said. She saw no other feasible way she could have attended college.
Black, DACA-Less, And Making Change
At UC Irvine, Achieng interned at the women's center and soon discovered that the undocumented students coordinator had a small office nearby. She went in one day to ask what they had to offer.
Achieng said the coordinator later confessed that she thought Achieng must be lost. "So she was also biased a little bit," Achieng said.
An estimated 12.5% of undocumented college students across the U.S. are Black, according to the New American Economy report. Less than one in five of these students qualify for DACA, according to the report, a rate that's lower than Asian and Pacific Islander undocumented youth (29% are eligible for DACA) and much lower than Latino undocumented youth (61% are eligible for DACA).
In focus groups convened by Immigrants Rising, Black students said they often don't feel welcome or represented in campus spaces created to support undocumented students.
But Achieng became increasingly involved with programs for undocumented students at UC Irvine. She participated in the DREAM Scholars Program, where she was paired with undocumented student mentors.
Achieng said one of her mentors was Asian Pacific Islander, which inspired her to get more involved advocating for undocumented students on campus.
"Seeing the diversity and his willingness to be involved even though nobody around him looked like him, I think that also inspired me,” Achieng said. “And so I was, like, 'Oh my God, I also want to be visible in this space so people also know that there's undocumented Black students."
The scholars program also included weekly seminars, which is where Achieng learned about DACA, verified that she didn't qualify because she came to the U.S. in 2010, after the June 2007 cut-off date, and began to understand what that meant.
Unlike her classmates who had DACA, Achieng didn't qualify for UC work-study, so she had to seek out fellowships and other programs that pay students stipends through state or campus financial aid. During her sophomore year, Achieng wanted to intern at the campus's new DREAM Center for undocumented students but she said she was told they couldn't pay her because she didn't have work authorization.
Gin, the executive director of Immigrants Rising, said undocumented students often have to work menial jobs through college and miss out on career development opportunities.
"They might be able to get through school," she said, "but they have very little time for one of those career internships or things that more affluent students might be able to pursue to put on their resumé."
Achieng was already deeply involved with the campus DREAM Center, helping coordinate a special graduation ceremony for undocumented students. She wanted to continue working there her junior year, but she needed to get paid.
With the help of fellow members of the campus undocumented student organization S.A.F.I.R.E. (Students Advocating For Immigrant Rights and Equity), Achieng launched a campaign to create a new fellowship program for undocumented students that would allow them to get paid directly through campus academic departments rather than federal work-study.
Achieng spent her junior year lobbying for the new fellowship program and trying to get campus departments to agree to sponsor undocumented fellows. "We met with the deans of almost all the schools," she said. Most of them signed on.
During Achieng's senior year, she was one of five inaugural DREAM Project fellows, working in the UC Irvine medical school dean's office. "That was a really great experience," Achieng, who was pre-med at the time, said. (She ultimately decided not to pursue medical school.)
This academic year, 55 undocumented fellows participated in the program at UC Irvine, according to Angela Chen, director of the campus's DREAM Center. Achieng is proud of her work in making that happen. "It's crazy, I'm like 'that is a whole legacy,'" she said.
The Limits Of State Aid
Chen has spent more than a decade helping undocumented students achieve their higher education goals, including as former director of the undocumented students program at UCLA. She said resources vary widely from campus to campus.
UC Irvine's DREAM Center has grown from a tiny office to an ample new space with three full-time staff members. The University of Southern California has a website that directs undocumented students to resources, but has no physical space specifically for them (USC's undocumented services are part of the school's First Generation Plus Success Center). On some other campuses, undocumented service coordinators operate out of a closet or a basement, Chen said.
"So I think it's really hard to say, 'these are kind of like the benchmarks and standards,'" she said. "We're still trying to figure that out."
The pandemic has been especially hard on undocumented students, Chen said. Many faced increased financial hardship because they and their families didn't qualify for much of the emergency aid doled out by the federal government.
"A lot of our students left college to be the breadwinner for their families, with no safety nets, no health care access," Chen said.
Chen said when some campuses started offering services to undocumented students, more than a decade ago, there was a general assumption that the need would be temporary until the federal government provided a permanent fix for young people who lacked legal immigration status, often through no fault of their own. But that hasn't happened.
A lot of our students left college to be the breadwinner for their families, with no safety nets, no health care access.
In the meantime, campuses have to keep abreast of political developments on immigration in order to respond to the changing needs of undocumented students, Chen said. Currently, that means anticipating a near future where few to no students have DACA. Just 41% of undocumented students currently enrolled in higher education are eligible for DACA, according to the New American Economy report.
The number of students who meet the requirements for the temporary work permit — especially, having lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007 — are dwindling. Plus, a federal court ruling has prohibited any new acceptances into DACA since July 2021, although applications are still accepted.
That means more undocumented students will find it difficult to earn money while they're in school, Gin said. Plus, many would-be undocumented students might question the payoff if they can't get a job that puts to use their college degree.
"The ways that we talk about college, the ways that we determine the value and worthiness of the investment doesn't seem like it's gonna pay off for those non-DACA students," Gin said, adding that her organization is putting an increased focus on entrepreneurship as a possible endgame for students whose employment is limited by federal restrictions. That's because many business functions can be carried out with an Individual Tax Identification Number, ITIN, which doesn't require a social security number.
Lacking DACA also limits undocumented students' choices for graduate programs and the opportunities available to them within these programs, Chen said. This includes research opportunities and medical school where many clinical rotations are off-limits to students who don't have federal work authorization.
Ultimately, Chen and others said, there's only so much the state and individual campuses can do to support undocumented students without federal immigration reform. But even if that happens, she thinks there will still be strong need for campus resources like the UC Irvine DREAM Center.
"The immigrant experience is very traumatizing and hits really deep into their core understanding of their experience in the U.S.," Chen said. "It's important for us to have spaces to unpack that."
For Achieng, the undocumented community she formed at UC Irvine, and her advocacy for that community, was instrumental to her college experience. "It definitely has shaped who I am now, how I evaluate life, and how I look at the world," she said.
Elizabeth Tapia said her undocumented community has helped her feel less isolated.
"Because it's lonely, if you don't have anyone to share that with besides your family, like, it just makes you feel like it's just you in this big world, and you don't have anyone to relate," Tapia said.