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Young And Undocumented In America

For some time now, University of Washington, Bothell, sophomore Alejandra has been giving back to the undocumented immigrant community by helping students get through the college scholarship process.

There are about 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today. Nearly three million are 24 or younger like Alejandra.

Alejandra knows how hard it can be for undocumented students to make it through the education system. She was the only undocumented student in her high school classes.

“The other two that were [undocumented] dropped out. So I was alone, and nobody knew how to help me because they’d never actually had a student who was 1079 who wanted to go to college, someone who didn’t give up,” she said, referring to the law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Washington’s public colleges and universities.

Life in the US hasn’t been easy ever since Alejandra, age 12 at the time, and her mom moved from Guatemala to the United States. Ever since, Alejandra has lived life as an undocumented immigrant.

In Guatemala, her family had a comfortable life with both her college-educated parents working as accountants. But in the US, her mom has no Social Security number. She has no legal right to work so she nannies full time.

Alejandra wants more for herself and for her family, and to achieve her dreams, she knows that it’s important to get an education. Since she was little, her dad told her that she would go to the university he attended. Her goal is to get a master’s degree, and maybe a doctorate, so she can teach Latin American studies.

“I feel like in order to actually know more in depth about Latino history you have to be Latino yourself, because you know what Latinos go through,” she said.

But paying for that education is a struggle. Like her mother, Alejandra doesn’t have a Social Security number, so she can’t apply for federal aid. Alejandra had no choice but to apply for privately funded scholarships.

Applying for scholarships – and facing repeat rejection – was emotionally exhausting. As Alejandra finished high school, she still didn’t have the money for her first quarter in college.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "One day I just went to my mom's bed, and I started crying with my mom, and I was like, \"What if I can't afford it? What's going to happen?\"", "style": "inset"}]]Her dream seemed impossible. “One day I just went to my mom’s bed, and I started crying with my mom, and I was like, ‘What if I can’t afford it? What’s going to happen?’"

Alejandra didn’t give up though, and today she’s received 13 scholarships and can pay through her junior year in college.

Her love of education and giving back keeps her busy with undocumented students:  planning a conference, compiling scholarship portfolios or just sharing her story.

“Usually what I first do is tell them my story, in order for them to see that I am confident about who I am and about this label that’s put on me,” she said. “I accept it but also empower myself through it so that they can see that. And then they can come to me to do it.”

Things are really looking up for Alejandra this year. She’s got a legal job for the first time as a teaching assistant for incoming freshmen at Cleveland High School in Seattle.

“The job I have now I couldn’t apply to a year ago,” she said. Even if employers wanted her, Alejandra’s undocumented status was a barrier to getting on the payroll.

She was able to get her new job because of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows undocumented youth to apply for a work permit. DACA also means she won’t be deported. Still, her future is uncertain. DACA is an executive order and if someone else were to be president, they could change it.

Alejandra feels like the situation for undocumented immigrants is getting better. She knows immigration reform is stuck in congress, but she’s sure it’s coming.

“It will to take a while, just like everything else. But it’s getting better and hopefully it doesn’t get so bad.”

This story originally aired on September 2, 2013.

RadioActive is KUOW's youth radio program, and all the stories here are produced by young people age 16-21. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.