At first glance I look like any other Fullerton College student, textbooks and folders in one hand, iPhone in the other, a large tote bag stuffed with yesterday’s notes and random necessities and an urgency in my walk that only college students can relate to.
But really, I’m an undocumented college student living below the poverty line. I don’t look or act any different.
I’m lucky to be here. I’m lucky to be going to school, any school, that will accept my willingness to learn and educate me to my highest potential.
What does living under the poverty line while being undocumented mean? Even I have a hard time swallowing this myself at times.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the poverty threshold for a family of six is $32,580 in 2016. My family lingered just below $30,000 last year.
As the eldest of 4 kids, I am the only one attending college and miraculously making it one day at a time with the help of two extremely supportive parents.
On top of that, I don’t have the proper paperwork to prove that I am a U.S. citizen. I immigrated to California from South Korea at the age of four and simultaneously had no idea I would be thrust into the often shaky and lonely world of college life as an undocumented student.
Being undocumented bars me from truly exploring my educational and financial possibilities. I’m not supposed to excel. I’m not supposed to have opportunities. Yet, here I am.
Sure, one could call me illegal. That won’t change the fact that I’ve lived in California for more than half my life and have assimilated into American culture by the time I could utter a single word in English at four years old. I vowed to myself that I will perfect the language the moment I set foot in this country.
I love America, despite some of its shortcomings. I consider myself American. It doesn’t matter to me that society says I’m not.
However, calling myself American doesn’t work the same way with college paperwork. I had to deal with the heartache that accompanies the undocumented status from the start of my college career until now. I didn’t have a choice but to play by the rules to get what I wanted. And I badly wanted college.
It’s crazy how I feel so normal, yet this notion of being undocumented quite often jolts me out of my seat.
First, it was realizing that I didn’t have a Social Security number to report to FAFSA. Just like that, financial aid escaped from my hands. Counselor after counselor told me I didn’t qualify for federal aid of any kind. I had to do this on my own.
I still remember that summer after my senior year of high school I had a full-time job. While everyone I knew flew overseas to capture perfect Instagram moments I was supervising kids in their weekly swimming lessons.
There was also the fact that I couldn’t obtain a driver’s license and legally work until my sophomore year of college, all because I didn’t have proof of identification.
The process of filling out paperwork after paperwork and meeting with lawyers to make sure I was qualified for a SSN and work permit to prevent deportation, all under the name of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), was quite like wading through molasses.
Every step I tried to take wouldn’t let me go forward. My parents and I were exhausted and almost lost all hope at times. I constantly questioned myself if all our efforts were worth it.
While all those sleepless nights and prayer proved fruitful, it took me 22 years to believe that I was worth fighting for. My education, above all things, was worth fighting for.
Sure, I’m still struggling. I will never experience the dorm life. I’ve juggled school and work life since the beginning of my college career. Although I now qualify for the DREAM Act, a legislation that allows undocumented students to fund their education under certain criteria, I still feel guilty every time my mom offers her credit card to buy my books. While I’ve finally gotten a work permit, renewal costs half a grand every two years and certainly doesn’t guarantee citizenship.
I’ve lived through it and that’s all that matters. Nearly 1,000 Fullerton College students are living my story right now, and it brings me great comfort to know that there are people out there who understand.
I can’t do much to change my circumstances but I do have a voice..