College Park, Md–– “You can change things, even though people say that you can’t,” said Stephanie, a senior, Indonesian, and UndocuTerp who has been challenged time and time again trying to reach her dream of higher education.
As a request from the interviewee, we will be using Stephanie as a pseudonym for this student feature.
At the age of eight, Stephanie, came to the United States (U.S.) in search for a better life. Stephanie and their family moved to the U.S so that they could have better opportunities and move away from violence. They sought this because at the time, the political climate in Indonesia was difficult. The country was going through several governmental challenges and religious tensions. Stephanie’s family of three decided to abandon Indonesia and move to the U.S. Stephanie vividly remembers her childhood memories being full of transitions. “I remember during our first year in the U.S. we were moving from city to city,” said Stephanie. They recall moving through Los Angeles, Chicago, and Tennessee. After moving across these cities with the intention to find a home, the family, decided to settle in Fairfax Virginia, where the rest of her childhood was spent. Later, due to the high living cost, their family moved to Washington, District of Columbia. While in D.C. the high rent cost made it very impossible to also stay in the area. This resulted in their family having to move once again, this time outside of the district and into Montgomery County located in the state of Maryland. This is where Stephanie would continue their primary education and spend the rest of their adolescence.
Once graduated form high school, Stephanie decided to attend Montgomery College. This was the first step they needed to take so that they could be eligible to attend University of Maryland and pay in-state tuition. Although Stephanie understood that she needed to take this step, she did not understand why undocumented students in Maryland had to attend a community college first in order to be able to attend a public four year institution and be able to pay in-state-tuition. “Growing up I never realized I was undocumented; my life changed when I started to pursue higher education,” they said. Trying to pursue higher education was how they learned of the multiple disadvantages and barriers that came with being undocumented. For Stephanie deciding to study at University of Maryland (UMD) was a an important decision for two reasons, one because it had a reputable government and politics program, and two because the university was the most affordable and convenient institution accessible to them. Growing up Stephanie always had a passion for justice and they wanted to pursue a higher education in order to work in government affairs.
Stephanie shared, “My grandfather was a political leader in my country; he always advocated for education equity.” Having their grandfather’s influence and remembering how important education was to them they decided to apply to UMD. Getting a degree in government politics seemed like a more tangible goal once they got accepted at UMD. Until one day which seemed to be a normal day full of coursework and classes, they received an email from the registrar’s office that ultimately changed their life. This email had information that stated that they would now be classified as an out-of-state student and therefore they would have to pay out-of-state tuition which was something that neither they or their family could afford. With a sad tone, Stephanie described this situation as the worst experience they ever faced. They explained that in-state tuition averaged about $10,000 to $12,000 a year and out-state- tuition ranged from $36,000 to $40,000 a year. Stephanie explained that their dream of obtaining a higher education was slipping through their fingers. “ I had lived most of my life in this country; I went to a Maryland high school, I went to Montgomery College, I had good grades, and I did everything I possibly could to be at the university,” they said “with that email I saw myself not being able to afford my education.”
Even though all of these things were pushing them to give up on their higher education dream, they were never discouraged by these circumstances, they were sad but they decided to move forward with their college career by studying harder. Stephanie also decided to find help by talking to the Asian American Studies Coordinator, Dr. Janelle Wong, to seek advice on their current challenge and to see if there was anyone else on campus that could help. Dr. Wong recommended them to also shared their case with CASA, formerly known as the Central American Solidarity Association of Maryland in order to to raise awareness about undocumented students and seek legal advice for their case, if needed. She received support from various staff and faculty and started the long process known as residency reclassification. This process requires a submission of documents such as tax information, high school transcripts, proof of residency in the state of Maryland for at least five years, and other personal documents including bank statements, proof of rent payments and/or a deed of a house. Additionally, the process requires a list of memberships, clubs engagement or events that show their constant participation in the State of Maryland. With a frustrated voice Stephanie stated, “ I am a Maryland resident, I have lived most of my life in Maryland, I don’t understand why they have to be so invasive or why they don’t require this information of U.S. citizen students. Why the special privilege? Ultimately, “I am a Maryland resident” was one of the arguments that they made as a reason on why they deserved to be categorized as a Maryland state resident.
Through this burdensome journey Stephanie did not only look for and find staff and faculty support on campus; they also continued to receive the moral support of their family. Justifiably so, this battle needed support from various areas in order to receive the strength she needed to go through this long and tedious process of gaining in-state-tuition. While their fight for in-state tuition had begun they also needed to tackle another problem; affording the cost of tuition. Even if she had been granted in-state tuition, coming up with the money was tough. To work through this issue Stephanie decided to raise funds to continue their college journey, they decided that creating and disseminating a Gofundme page on Facebook would be the best strategy for them to be able to fundraise. This decision however, was something that their family was very mad about. They did not agree with their decision to ask for resources via Facebook because their family was afraid of their own immigration statuses being exposed to the public. As a result, they had to delete their fundraising page. The best they could do was to work hard as a waiter in order to raise money for tuition and hope that their case would grant them in-state tuition.
After a long tuition reclassification battle that included several hostile emails and denials, they received a presidential appeal awarding them in-state-tuition. “I have no words to describe how happy I felt that day; the best news in my life,” Stephanie shared with tears. While this battle was won, being able to pay for school was not easy for them. While their friends and other peers were engaging in games, the gym, or getting involved in extracurricular activities, they had to work 25 to 35 hours a week in order to be able to afford higher education. This was in addition to being a full time student. These circumstances did not allow them to pursue internships or be able to get involved in activities that would have helped them network and perhaps even find a job post graduation. 2018 marks three years since they received that email and they found themselves having to fiercely advocate for themselves.
Now they are counting down the days until their graduation. They will finally be graduating with a government and politics Bachelor’s degree. When I asked Stephanie what they were looking forward to post graduation they said, “I want to take a little break and travel within the United States. I have never been on a vacation; I deserve it.” Once they take some time off they expect to enter the job market and begin their career by working at a non-profit organization that helps immigrants, women, or in general engage in civil rights advocacy. Her experience as an undocumented student has fueled a passion to help others and advocate for equity for all. Furthermore, Stephanie hopes to continue advocating for a solution to adjust her immigration status, help other immigrants advocate for themselves, earn a path to citizenship and live without the fear of deportation. In the future, they hope to return to school to pursue a Master’s degree in something related to politics, government, or education. Moving forward, Stephanie encourages folks to engage and advocate for themselves. They truly want undocumented students to believe that change is possible. “You can change things, even though people say that you can’t.”