Karina De La Cruz wakes up in the dark on her first day of classes at UCLA.
Pushing herself off a two-seat couch in the living room of a San Pedro apartment this September morning, she tries not to wake a brother sleeping in a twin bed next to her, or another dozing with his wife and baby daughter in the bedroom. De La Cruz dresses quickly and briefly considers taking her skateboard, then thinks of how her mother rolls her eyes whenever she rides it. She leaves it behind.
She hurries to the corner to catch the bus, clutching her last $5. She scans the road–she can’t be late, can’t do anything that would hurt her chances of maintaining a B average. The first in her family to attend college, De La Cruz believes that a 3.0 is her way out of a crowded apartment and into a life with new opportunities.
De La Cruz faces fairy tale odds. She’s an illegal immigrant, so she isn’t eligible for most forms of state and federal financial aid. The University of California system, by policy, does not require applicants to disclose their citizenship status: Officials say their goal is to find the best students, not to enforce immigration law. UCLA officials say they aren’t even sure how many undocumented students are on their campus.
The 18-year-old De La Cruz graduated barely in the top 20% of her San Pedro High class and is competing against students with much higher GPAs and test scores. She probably doesn’t have enough money to finish her first year of classes.
She has almost no safety net: She doesn’t know her father, and her mother, who lives across the street, didn’t get up to wish her good luck. She met a few people during orientation but doesn’t have anyone she would consider a friend.
UCLA officials acknowledge that some freshmen are admitted for reasons other than their grades and test scores, that some students come from dramatically different backgrounds than many of their peers but show academic promise. They say there are programs on campus to help these students But De La Cruz isn’t aware of them.
De La Cruz was born in Mexico. One of her first memories is running through the darkness to a van when she was 4 years old as her brother whispered to her to be quiet. They drove to San Pedro, where her mother had family. Her mother found work in a fish cannery, working seven days a week while the children went to school.
De La Cruz struggled in elementary school.
“I could never make sense of the language and only understood half the things people said,” she wrote in her UCLA application essay. Things weren’t better at home. The family lived in a small apartment with an aunt, and De La Cruz’s mother seemed preoccupied with saving enough money to move out. She had little time to spend with her children, much less attend parent-teacher conferences. The two grew distant.
The average UCLA freshman boasted a 4.22 GPA in 10th and 11th grades, according to the most recent data posted by the school, and De La Cruz had a 3.365 at San Pedro High when she applied. She got a 21 out of a possible 36 on the ACT college admissions exam, ranking her in the 48th percentile in California. She scored 380 out of a possible 800 on an SAT subject test, putting her in the third percentile nationwide.
But on March 8, De La Cruz opened an e-mail from UCLA, and a congratulatory banner popped up. She screamed and asked a friend to look.
By her standards, UCLA would be expensive. It costs about $17,500 per year for fees, books, transportation and living expenses. She wanted to live in a dorm, which would add $7,500. She had a job at Wienerschnitzel, but it paid minimum wage.
Her prayers weren’t answered. De La Cruz would have to take at least one remedial English course before she could take regular freshman English, meaning she might have to spend an extra quarter at UCLA. She’d hoped to graduate in four years to save money.
Her mood was still dark a few weeks later, when she went to the Boys & Girls Club’s College Bound program annual awards ceremony. But at the end of the evening, she was awarded a $4,000 scholarship.
Later in the summer, Mike Lansing, director of the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, held a fundraiser for De La Cruz, bringing her college fund to $10,680. That was enough for maybe two quarters.
Club officials held out hope that more people would donate, but said they wouldn’t be able to help more.
Disappointed, she wandered down to Bruin Walk, where sororities were out recruiting. She smoothed her black hair, unruly from two hours on the bus. A blond sorority sister glanced at De La Cruz and yanked back the flier.
De La Cruz missed only one day of classes over the next month. That Friday, she was late to a bus connection and frantically skateboarded down Wilshire Boulevard for 45 minutes before realizing she wouldn’t make it in time and turned around, sweaty and frustrated.
Despite her diligence, De La Cruz struggled to keep up.
It was the second tutoring session De La Cruz attended. UCLA officials say she missed other opportunities: A student like her probably had been invited to a summer program, and there’s also an academic advancement program she could have joined, said Thomas Lifka, an associate vice chancellor.
Lifka became exasperated when told De La Cruz hadn’t heard of the programs, possibly because she didn’t hook up her UCLA e-mail account until well into the school year.
Before the science midterm, De La Cruz wanted to take an online practice test, but she didn’t have access to a computer at home. She returned to San Pedro and worked a few hours, then got back on the bus to Westwood for a study group.
On good days, the promise of a UCLA diploma seemed worth the 80-mile round-trip commute, but that night it seemed overwhelming.
Weeks of riding the bus and struggling through classes had taken its toll. As she rattled north toward campus, De La Cruz realized that her chances of getting a job as a psychologist were tiny even if she were to graduate with a B average because she probably can’t afford graduate school and most companies won’t hire illegal immigrants.
At the end of the quarter, she had a C-plus in the class. She got an A-minus in art appreciation, earning a B-minus average. Still, she was crushed over her Life Science course.
All of those miles commuting, the cold silences from her mother, the long hours she’d worked, only to fall short.