Experiences of Being a DACAmented Graduate Student at USF

erika landa

My name is Erika Landa Sarmiento. I am a DACAmented student born in Puebla, Mexico, and was brought to the United States at age two. Growing up, I set a goal for myself to be the first one in my family to graduate from a university. Last May, that dream became a reality when I graduated from California State University, Channel Islands, with a Bachelor of Arts in Chicana/o Studies.

I applied to graduate programs, because I was encouraged to do so by my mentors. Beyond obtaining a bachelor’s degree, I had never imagined what I would do or become. As long as I can remember being in this country, I have been in school but I did not really know “what happens” after completing K-12. School has always been a place where I can excel and achieve regardless of my legal status. Yes, there have been barriers and challenges, but I have power over my academic excellence. My education cannot be taken from me the day that I am removed from this country. I stand in a place of privilege everyday that I attend classes and work at this university; it is a privilege that is thanks to the undocumented students who have broken down barriers and to the allies that have stood with us. Barriers include the lack of financial resources, the opportunity to apply to private universities, and the ability to obtain in state tuition to name a few.

When I started the graduate program in Migration Studies, I didn’t have a set idea of what I was doing or why I would be doing such work. I had done previous research on Two-Spirit danzantes (dancers) as an undergraduate, and so I simply continued that work my first semester here. As an undocumented student, I was highly involved in my community, organizing local undocumented youth. By my last year as an undergraduate, I was already “burned out” when we received news that as DACA recipients, we would not be able to leave the country through advance parole any longer. I had applied to Dreamers Study Abroad through the California-Mexico Studies Center which took dreamers to Mexico for three weeks, three times, and that year I had finally been accepted. My dreams to return to my home country legally were shattered, and I left the movement, the organizing, the research, and anything else that involved my undocumented status. Everything that had to do with my “illegality” upset me and made me feel resentment towards my mother for bringing me to this country. In my eyes, all there was left to fix was giving us a pathway to citizenship until I arrived to USF. I began to experience new struggles as an undocumented graduate student and realized that I was not the only one. The same disappointment and struggle that had ignited me to organize as an undergraduate began to come back.

My program had offered me a scholarship and I had received a fellowship, as well as other scholarships that helped pay for the first semester here, but when the second semester came around, scholarships were much harder to obtain. Unlike other graduate programs here, mine did not have unique scholarships specifically for undocumented students. By the second semester, I only had enough funding for four units, a total of $5,540 which puts me at a place where I must catch up with my cohort in the summer. Being awarded over $18,000 in scholarships for my first academic year was a blessing, but also a hard realization that I must win that amount of money again to finish my degree. Tuition is one part of being an undocumented student, but there are more stress factors that aren’t necessarily visible. Being a student is only one layer of my identity, I am also a provider for my family. I have had to work three jobs to be able to support my education and my family since the departure of my father to Mexico. Having moments of doubt if my education should be a priority has placed my mental health in a bad place since the beginning of the program.

To my knowledge the School of Education has been the only one able to establish and give scholarships to undocumented graduate students. In addition, the students in the School of Law have raised money individually through the establishment of their own nonprofit organization. The politics of higher education spaces give little to no space for funding opportunities for students overall and much less for students without legal status. Granted, our program is fairly new and I am not sure how many undocumented students have voiced this concern. However, there have been financial resources such as the Magis Scholarship which awards undergraduates with $8,000 and graduates with $1,000. In the total scope of the cost of tuition at our university this is not enough to attend without the stress factor of finding other funding.

My own struggle, and those of my DACA colleagues, have led me to explore a fairly new area to this research topic. After speaking to Dr. William Perez Gonzalez, a well-recognized scholar on the topic of undocumented students, we concluded that what continues to be absent in the field is the experiences of undocumented graduate students. This includes the ways in which universities are supporting them: the unique challenges students face while in graduate school and solutions for long term academic success. Having to work with what is available and accessible to me has however taught me new skills. My program is extremely supportive of the work that I am doing and of my academic success, but there is only so much they can do as a program. Over the course of my remaining time here at USF, I hope to document the stories of undocumented graduate students, bring light to the issues undocumented graduate students face here at USF, and provide suggestions of the ways in which we think the university can better support us. I am excited to be able to contribute to the university I am attending and to be able to create accessible paths for the undocumented graduate students that are coming after me. To be able to give value and worth to every person that has fought for me to be here is my biggest motivation.

MIMS Cohort 3. Class of 2020.
MIMS Cohort 3. Class of 2020.

I want to end this post by highlighting how important it is to fund the education of graduate undocumented students at USF. We believe that change starts here in our university, we believe in social justice, and are leaders in our communities. We stand for those who don’t have a voice due to systems of oppression. If we are already finding undocumented students in the undergraduate path, I strongly believe that together we can do more to fill the gaps for graduate undocumented students. My community is full of knowledge, empowerment, and ready to be a part of the change USF is a part of.

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