I Told Harvard I Was an Undocumented Immigrant

Dario Guerrero, Washington Post, September 24, 2014

After I arrived home from soccer practice, the phone rang. “El Camino,” my mother said as she handed it to me, referring to a nearby community college. I was taking engineering courses there, offered in conjunction with my high school, but the woman from the registrar’s office had a problem: The Social Security number I had provided to receive college credit did not match my name, and if I couldn’t provide a valid number, I’d have to pay almost $2,000 for the classes I’d taken.

Why, I asked my parents, had my Social Security number been rejected? They told me they had given me my little brother’s number. It was a simple explanation, taking no more than 10 seconds in Spanish:

“Son, we overstayed our visa when you were three. You don’t have a social security number.”

I hadn’t known until then I was undocumented. I was 16, a high school junior, with big ambitions. Was I going to have to give them all up?

*       *       *

My friend Oscar, too, learned he was undocumented at the beginning of high school. {snip}

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It was possible, we learned, to be admitted to most public and private colleges regardless of our legal status. But paying for them was a different matter. At the time, there was no way to receive financial aid to state schools unless you had a Social Security number. A few private institutions offered varying amounts of money to admitted students, from small stipends to a full ride. Oscar and I decided that no school was worth bankrupting our families, so we set our sights on the narrow band of “need-blind” private schools–ones that dispensed as much money as students needed could prove they needed–including all of the Ivy League universities.

A few private institutions would also pay to fly in poor high school seniors trying to decide if their school was right for him or her. I qualified. These were mostly small liberal arts colleges, but they gave us a chance to leave Los Angeles and discover what college would be like. I visited five schools–MIT, College of the Atlantic, Williams College, Wesleyan University, and Washington and Lee University–each time waiting until I could tell a financial aid officer in person about my immigration status. All but two schools, MIT and Williams (which worried about losing federal grants), told me to apply anyway.

This broke my heart, because walking around MIT convinced me to become an engineer. I knew immediately that it was the place for me. It was massive and overwhelming, and I wanted nothing more than to conquer it. But the financial aid officer told me on the last day of my visitors’ program that I could not legally be admitted. {snip}

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My dream crushed, I left the office in a daze and started walking down Massachusetts Avenue. Without really planning it, I found myself in the middle of Harvard. Since I was there, I found the Admissions and Financial Aid office and walked in to tell them the truth, too. An officer agreed to see me. My meeting was brief, but it suddenly reversed all the self-doubt: “If you are admitted to Harvard College,” she said, “we will meet your full financial need without regard to your legal status.” Not only would they follow the too-good-to-be-true need-blind policy I’d read about, but they didn’t care about immigration status.

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A few weeks later, Oscar and I sat down, college applications in hand, to share what we had learned on our travels. We created a Web site for other undocumented students with everything we had learned by e-mail, phone, and in person. We got to work on our applications. Although we were undocumented applicants, most schools still asked to see some proof of income so they could determine our financial-aid award. Thankfully, my parents had filed taxes since the year we arrived; I sent our latest returns.

I applied to every Ivy League school, the University of Chicago, Georgetown, Wesleyan, Washington and Lee, and College of the Atlantic. On Jan. 11, as I sat in the library doing research for a government class project, I got a call from a Massachusetts area code. The Harvard Admissions Committee had voted to send me a likely letter of admission. (Oscar later got a call from Cornell.) And they gave me a full ride. This meant I wouldn’t have to worry about student loans or quarterly tuition payments; that I always had a place to stay away from home; that I could travel every semester, on Harvard’s dime, back to California; that my parents would never have to worry whether I’d finish school. Those are luxuries few people, documented or not, ever have.

I used to think that being undocumented was a disadvantage to me. I used to mourn the fact that I was different. But ultimately I realize that it was because of, not in spite of, my identity–as an undocumented Chicano–that I was been able to do what I did. Being something different in the socioeconomic fabric of the United States gave me the perspective I have.

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