Students Recall College Life as Undocumented Immigrants College life, for any undergraduate student, is often met with challenges that can sometimes seem larger than life. Those same challenges can be even more burdensome for undocumented immigrants on campuses across the U.S. Kent Wong, editor of Underground Undergrad, and Mariana Zamboni, once an undocumented student, discuss the challenges.
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Students Recall College Life as Undocumented Immigrants

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Students Recall College Life as Undocumented Immigrants

Students Recall College Life as Undocumented Immigrants

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Getting through college can be tough for many students, considering the academic pressure, the high cost, but what about when a student is in the U.S. illegally? We've all heard of undocumented workers. Now because of a group of students at UCLA, we are learning more about undocumented students. Some of their stories are collected in the book "Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out." We are exploring this issue with one of our Behind Closed Doors conversations. Joining us now are Kent Wong, Editor of the book and Director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and Mariana Zamboni. She is a formerly undocumented student. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KENT WONG (Editor, "Underground Undergrads" Director, UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education): Thank you, Michel.

Ms. MARIANA ZAMBONI (Former Undocumented Student): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Kent, if I could start with you? What gave you the idea for the book?

Mr. WONG: I've been teaching at UCLA for the past 20 years, and over the last few years, I've had a remarkable group of students in my classes. I teach labor studies and ethnic studies at UCLA. And these students are some of the most gifted and talented students of my career. The problem, however, is that they're undocumented. So as a consequence, they can't get a driver's license. They can't apply for financial aid. They can't get student loans. And upon graduating, they can't even legally work. So through my work with these students, we at the UCLA Labor Center decided to teach the very first class that would focus on the issues of undocumented students in the broader context of immigration and higher education.

MARTIN: There are some states in which you can get a driver's license without documentation of citizenship, but I think it's surprising for some people to learn given all the paper work involved in going to college, all of the - you know what I mean? All - there's the proverbial thick envelope and all that that represents in terms of the paperwork that you can go to college without being documented. I assume that varies from state to state, but how is that possible?

Mr. WONG: Well, within the state of California because of the passage of Assembly Bill 540, undocumented students now are able to attend higher education without paying out of state tuition, and that has been a huge boom to many undocumented students who want to pursue higher education.

MARTIN: Mariana, would you just tell us a little bit about your experience and when did you come to this country?

Ms. ZAMBONI: I came to this country when I was seven years old.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us a little bit about how and why you came to this country? And what was the decision like to think about going to college knowing that you were undocumented?

Ms. ZAMBONI: I came to Los Angeles to be reunited with my mother. She had left Guatemala in 1988 because the economic instability that Guatemala suffered due to the Civil War that lasted 36 years left Guatemala in very bad conditions. So my mother, you know, moved to Los Angeles to work, to make some money, and her plan was to go back. All her family's there. Her children were there. But Guatemala did not get better, and it was easier just to bring me along. So I moved to Los Angeles when I was a second grader. So throughout school, teachers, administrators had a lot of vision for me. They had high expectations. You know, I was a good student. They told me work hard, and you can go to college. So that's what I did.

When I was in high school, I discovered the impact that my undocumented status was going to have in completing a college education, and I was pretty torn down. I was actually pretty depressed that it was going to be extremely hard.

MARTIN: What was the main issue? What was the main obstacle? Was it the fact that you'd have to pay out of state tuition, or were there other things as well?

Ms. ZAMBONI: The main issue was - yeah, getting the money. How am I going to pay for school if I can't qualify for financial aid and if most scholarships are not even open for me? My family's working class. I'm going to probably be working underground economy, which is five dollars an hour. So I knew that education was important. So I - in my mind, I said even if it takes me eight, 10 years to complete an education, I'm going to do it.

MARTIN: How did you do it?

Ms. ZAMBONI: With a lot, a lot of support from so many people. At the same time, I think the law that Kent talked about opened the doors of education for me. It allowed me to start community college and eventually transfer to my dream school, which was UCLA. But it was definitely with the financial support of many people. My grandmother's social security pension, friends letting me borrow money, many time kind of starving myself, or eating oatmeal or macaroni and cheese so that I won't spend money for food. It was - I lost 20 pounds, I think. You know, my first year at UCLA was because I was sacrificing so much sleep and so much food, you know?

MARTIN: What was the hardest part, and what was the best part?

Ms. ZAMBONI: The hardest part was wondering if going to school was the right thing, because I knew that being undocumented, it was going to be really hard to get a good job afterwards. And good job, I mean to utilize my degree. Friends that were graduating were going into construction, and they were waiters or waitresses, so I felt is this pain that I'm going through of finding pennies to pay for school, was this even worth it? I think that was the hardest.

The best thing, I would say, is that I think I walked out of UCLA with more than just a degree. I learned tenacity. I learned that if you keep on knocking on doors, something will be open. To be grateful. And these are lessons that no matter if you have all the money in the world, you know, you must learn these through struggle and through pain, so I think that's the best thing that happened to me.

MARTIN: Kent, I was wondering how you were able to figure out who was undocumented and who wasn't for purposes of putting this book together, and was there any risk involved in some of the students coming forward? I know you're using pseudonyms in some of the - throughout the book for some of the people that you write about, but was there any risk to them coming forward?

Mr. WONG: There is always a risk among these undocumented students, and I am so amazed at their courage to step forward and to emerge from the shadows and share their stories. Many of them talk about the greater risk is to be quiet. The greater risk is to not share their stories and to not let people know what is going on. About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school every year. And, you know, we as a society have invested tremendous resources in these young people. You know, they are required under law to attend public school. And many are graduating and want to pursue higher education, want to be able to contribute to our society. But until there is a change in the law, they're really limited.

And so when we put together this publication, we were very conscious of the fact that number one, this is a story that had to be told. We had to let people know what is going on. And at the same time, we had to respect their concerns about their own personal risk. And so when we put the book together, we were very conscious of using pseudonyms when appropriate, not using photos of the students or taking photos in the shadows. The cover of the book is, you know, one of the students featured in the book, but he's in a shadow, so you can't recognize the features.

MARTIN: What are some of the other stories in the book that you can tell us about, as briefly as you can, Kent?

Mr. WONG: One extraordinary student, Tam Tran (ph), who is a Vietnamese student, but she's never lived in Vietnam. Her parents were boat people. They were - her father was a prisoner in Vietnam, and they fled the country. And yet, they were picked up by a German boat while most of the Vietnamese boat people were picked up by American boats. So she was born in Germany, and she came to this country when she was a very young girl. She's lived in this country almost her entire life.

She doesn't know German. She doesn't have any memories of Germany. And yet although she just graduated from UCLA and although she'll be starting a PhD at Brown University this fall, she's stateless. She is not a Vietnamese citizen because she's never lived in Vietnam. She's not a German citizen because Germany does not recognize citizenship based on birthright. And although she's lived in this country, and has gone to school, and has done everything that our society has asked her to do, we are not willing to give her legal status. And so, she's in limbo. Here's a brilliant young woman. She's starting a PhD program in the fall. And unless there is a change in the law, she will not be able to legally work upon graduating.

MARTIN: What's she going to do?

Mr. WONG: That's a big question. Many of these students who we work with and we talk to, we ask them this question well, if you can't legally work, why are you committed to go to college? And they respond to us and they say that they are hopeful, number one, that there will be a change in the law and that they will be able to practice their chosen professions and their chosen careers. And number two, that an education is something that no one can take from them. It's something that they will have throughout the rest of their life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Kent Wong and Mariana Zamboni about the experiences of undocumented undergraduates at UCLA. Kent is the editor of and Marian contributed to a new book about their experiences.

Kent, the book is very sympathetic as you might expect. It tells these - the stories of these students very vividly. They're stories of these difficult and sometimes dangerous crossings to get to the U.S. and the tenacity of the students, as you discussed, you know, their hard work, their dedication. There are some who will say that's all fine, but they're still breaking the law. And this is a nation of laws, and the laws have to be respected. What do you say to that?

Mr. WONG: Well, I say number one that we are a nation of immigrants and that immigrants throughout the generations have contributed immensely to this country and contribute much more than what they take. And these particular young people had no say in the decision of coming to this country. They were brought to this country as children by their parents or by relatives and that it is in our society's best interest to provide these young people who consider themselves Americans, who speak English, who have lived most of their lives in our country, it is in our collective interest to provide them the rights and the status so that they can practice and contribute to our society.

Even many members of the business community support the Federal Dream Act which has been introduced a number of times in Congress and was unfortunately blocked when it was introduced last year, would provide legal status for undocumented students who could prove that they have strong moral character and that they have completed, either, two years of college or service in the U.S. Military.

So it is an opportunity for undocumented students to earn legal status in this country. Many in the business community recognize that we have a tremendous need within our society for trained, educated people. And it is a very shortsighted position for us not to grant status and to provide the opportunities for these young people to contribute fully to our society.

MARTIN: As we know - higher education in this country, very expensive. And the top tier schools, very competitive to gain admission to. This is an issue that surfaced in the whole debate around affirmative action. There are those who say that well, if you're admitting students with, you know, lesser qualifications, it's unfair to the students whose qualifications are perhaps superior, and that that needs to be part of the conversation to. Has that - I'd like to ask if you'd consider that question around the whole issue of the undocumented students. I'm sure there are some who would say that there are undocumented students there, however worthy they are as students, however dedicated, they're taking the spaces of American students who - who are fully qualified by identity of their citizenship. What would you say to that?

Mr. WONG: What is remarkable is how well many of these undocumented students have done in spite of the barriers and limitations that they face. So we are not asking for any special privileges for these students. We are asking that they be allowed to compete just like any other student to gain entry to the university and to qualify for financial aid just like any other student.

MARTIN: Mariana, did any of your fellow students know of your status, or was that another layer of the college experience, feeling like you had to hide a part of your identity?

Mr. WONG: Very few people knew in my community college. When I transferred to UCLA, I learned about Ideas, which is a student group on campus that's composed of undocumented students or those that are in support of our education. So, you know, that was our community. We would help each other. We would lend each other books. We would do fundraisers selling sweet bread or even - later on, we started doing banquets, fundraisers...

MARTIN: Was it scary being part of a group like that though? Did you ever fear, like, I'm bringing unwarranted attention to myself and this could be a problem?

Ms. ZAMBONI: Honestly, when Ideas first started, it was very underground. You know, we didn't advertise our meetings or the location of our meetings anywhere because we were definitely scared when the whole anti-immigrant sentiment was growing. But later on when we discovered that there's legislation that would help ameliorate our struggles, we decided to be vocal about them and that being vocal about it has empowered us in many, many ways. Sharing our story heals many of our pain, and so many of us are activists now in talking about the issue.

MARTIN: What - I'd like to ask you the same question I asked Kent Wong, though, which is there are those who would say, I think it's great that you're such a dedicated student, but the law is the law. And if you're here without appropriate documentation, then the consequences have to follow from that that there are other people who came here, the so-called right way, and that they need to be given access to the opportunity of being in the U.S. first, if they came here the right way. And that people who came, you know, without appropriate documentation, have to suffer some consequence or need to go home until the situation's sorted out. What do you say to that?

Ms. ZAMBONI: It's a really hard question. I'll be honest with you. I think there are many - many factors that bring immigrants to this country that are, you know, not really talked about. But I think what I want people to know is that we do want to obey the law, you know? I don't think, well, like Kent said, I had no - I did not know what was going to happen with me. Like, I just knew I was going to go with my mom, and I just obeyed, you know? And this is a very particular case. It's of students that have grown up here that want to contribute, that have degrees, and we just want to give our best to the American society. And if people say just go back to your country, we feel foreigners - we feel like a tourist. We feel American.

MARTIN: Kent Wong, if I could have a final thought from you. What would you want people to get from this book? What do you think this book will add to the ongoing debate about immigration that we are having in this country?

Mr. WONG: I think that the role of undocumented youth and students in our society is something that has not been covered adequately. And I do think that the power of this book is that it puts a human face on a huge group of students and youth who are Americans. They - they grew up in our communities. They attended our public schools. They are doing everything they can to be a part of the American society and to fulfill the American dream. And I think that most people when they hear their stories and when they put a human face to this issue, will respond very sympathetically and will understood that yes, in fact, there should be a change in the law to provide an opportunity for these young people to fully contribute to our society, and that that would be in everybody's best interest.

MARTIN: Kent Wong is editor of the book "Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out." We also heard from Maria Zamboni. She contributed to the book. A recent graduate of UCLA, she just completed her master's degree in education from Harvard University. They both spoke to us from our studios at NPR West. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WONG: Thank you.

Ms. ZAMBONI: Thanks.

MARTIN: If you want to hear Mariana Zamboni reading her poem "Invisible," that she wrote about the plight of undocumented students, we will have it on our webpage at

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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