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Just by looking at her it is obvious she is Latina. Long black hair, white skin, pink lips, big brown eyes with long eyelashes, a curvy body shape, and a thick accent when she speaks English. She is a young woman who looks like any other college student, but there is a difference you can not tell just by looking at her. She belongs to a group of immigrant students who do not have the documents needed to fulfill their dreams and become professionals.
It is 6 PM, Luisa Gomez is walking down Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. It seems like everybody is Hispanic in this neighborhood. She arrived at her home which is decorated with vintage and antique furniture. She enters her room where there are only two beds which are separated by a small nightstand. There is a TV and an oval table where they can eat. Her mother is on one of the beds. “This is mine, you can seat here”. Luisa points to the other bed. “Welcome, this is our home,” she says while closing the door.
Luisa Gomez, 23, came to the United States in 2013. She was born in Colombia, South America. Luisa came to the U.S. after her mother decided to stay once she came for vacation. Fortunately, her dream always had been to live in the United States. Now, Luisa is a student at LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC) who has been struggling to complete her Associate’s degree and continue her education.
The language was her first challenge; she enrolled in the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) at LAGCC, where she learned and improved her skills at writing and speaking English. This program prepared her to take the CUNY assessment test, one that determines whether or not she would be able to start college. “The test is really hard for people who are learning English. I got really happy and proud of myself when I passed it,” she explains while putting some books inside her bag, “I knew this was the beginning of my career.” She looks tired. She is wearing glasses but the dark circles under her eyes are still visible.
“It has been a hard road,” Luisa says. She describes her life more like a routine with which she is grateful but not completely satisfied. “I wake up to go to school, then go to work and sometimes I don’t even have time to eat lunch. Not because I do not have money but because there is no time.” She is not complaining, but seems more like she wants some things to change. Luisa is a part-time student due to lack of economic resources to pay each semester. “I know it is hard for all students, but believe me when I tell you that it is a lot harder for undocumented students.” Luisa is not part of DACA or any other program that could help her with her immigration status or give her some benefits. “Being able to pay for college is a huge sacrifice for me and my mom, but it is also an achievement,” she says. Last year, Luisa paid more than $8,000 of tuition which she says could have been easier if CUNY had more programs to help students with immigration problems.
A light appeared on Luisa’s path when she found out she had won a scholarship from a private entity which donates money to the LaGuardia Foundation. “I went to [the] LAGCC website and looked for the requirements to apply for a scholarship. It did not say anything about immigration status but anyway I decided to apply just in case luck was in my favor,” she says. Luisa has been receiving this scholarship for the last 2 semesters. This entity pays for two classes and gives her a MetroCard for the semester.
According to Diana Hernandez, LaGuardia Foundation administrator, “Any student can be awarded as long as they are full time, have good attendance, good grades and fit the criteria.” Just as Luisa did, students can fill out the application online which will have a FAFSA section that students can skip when filling out the form. Then, the Development Department within the Foundation contacts students and ask them the reason why they are not applying for FAFSA. Those students will then fill out a form which the office uses to verify income. “It is an easy process and it is internal information; it does not leave LaGuardia,” says Ms. Hernandez. Repeatedly, she emphasized that “it is more about the need of the student and not their status.”
The scholarship is not the only help Luisa has to achieve her goals. Her mother has a big role in her life as well. It is 7:00 PM and they are ready to go to bed but they do not seem to be bothered by my presence anymore. Patricia enjoys listening to Luisa speaking about their life in America, she is full of emotions while staring at Luisa. “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this if it was not for my mom,” says Luisa, “It is admirable to see how my mom works so hard in a field completely different from her profession just so I can go to college.” Patricia worked as an engineer in Colombia and now is working in an office that is responsible for the repatriation of Colombians who died abroad. In other words, she is in charge of sending people who have passed away back to their original countries. “I would do everything for Luisa,” Patricia says, “she is not only a good daughter, she is a great person. I know I don’t have to worry about her doing anything wrong.”
When asked about her plans after graduating, her face expression changes drastically with preoccupation and sadness. “It is ironic … I yearn my graduation with all my heart but at the same time, it scares me to know that I will be a professional and have the knowledge to perform my job and even so, I might not be able to do it. Nobody is going to hire me officially with benefits and a good salary if I do not have a social security [number].”
“It is a battle that will never stop until I become legal. First the associate, then the bachelor, and after that it comes to find a good job … there is always going to be a, now what?” Luisa says.