The People United Will Never Be Defeated: Undocumented First Generation College Students Taking Care

We interviewed several students at UC Merced yesterday.

One of those students was Zuleyma.

I first met Zuleyma three years ago, when she gave a TED talk at TEDxYouth@Hollywood about her experiences as an undocumented high school student. Undocumented students are immigrants, many of whom came to the US as young children, who are here in the US without legal status.

Now Zuleyma is a junior at UC Merced majoring in Psychology. She has been active in SALE (Students Advocating for Law and Education), an organization supporting undocumented students at UC Merced. She lives in one of two houses (next door to each other), together with thirteen other undocumented students and their allies involved with SALE.

For many undocumented young people, college can feel unrealistic and inaccessible. The challenges of being first generation college are compounded for them. Money can be very tight in their families, and there are fewer resources and scholarships available for them. It can feel frightening and isolating to navigate the college process, and to gauge when and where it is safe to disclose your immigration status.

Though Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has provided a framework and some support for many of these young people, the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media, and the high numbers of undocumented people being detained and deported can be terrifying and demoralizing.

Upper division students are not guaranteed housing at UC Merced, and last spring, Zuleyma was having trouble finding an apartment for the coming year because she and her parents didn’t have the necessary credit documents. She was talking about these difficulties with a mentor, and jokingly, she suggested he buy a house for undocumented students. Three days later, she got a call from a realtor. Clearly, her mentor (who also happened to have been her high school principal) had taken the idea seriously. They initiated the process of purchasing both residences in Merced as housing for SALE students. They call the houses Mi Casa SALE.

Now Zuleyma serves as the property manager- paying bills, overseeing the property, and interfacing with the public on behalf of the houses, from the realtor to initially buy the houses, to neighbors and others. The supporter has agreed to donate the house to SALE, so it can provide safe, affordable housing for undocumented students in perpetuity.

In addition to interviewing Zuleyma, we talked with Tomas and Juan, two other UC Merced students who live in the houses. They went to high school together in the Central Valley, are in their third year in college, and were founding members of SALE as freshmen. Tomas is a mechanical engineering major who hopes to work in solar energy, and Juan is a Management and Business Economics major, with a minor in Public Health.

Beyond all three students’ individual stories, I was struck and inspired by the community all these students have created in their homes.

Like fraternity and sorority houses, these houses serve as a home base for the organization and its members. Residents are leaders and officers in the organization. They hold meetings and social gatherings at Mi Casa SALE. The welcoming atmosphere is inviting and homey, and I imagine helps make new, nervous students who come to college without knowing anyone, feel more at ease and connected.

Though college can be competitive, they all emphasized the supportive energy at Mi Casa SALE, and the ways that students help each other, support each other, and look out for each other.

All three students we interviewed talked about the power of having that safe space- for themselves and for other students at UC Merced who are younger than they are, and newer to college.

Zuleyma, Tomas and Juan and the other SALE students want undocumented students to know they have a place to go, and people to talk to who understand them. They want to support others like them by sharing resources and strategies for success at UC Merced.

They also have a vision to create other homes like these at UC college campuses throughout California. They want to make sure that undocumented students around the state who are motivated to learn and contribute to our society have a chance to attend and graduate from college. They want to harness all the talent of these motivated young people to benefit the state of California and its communities.

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