Disregard what T.S. Eliot said about April. For an undocumented student, September is the cruelest month. It is that time of the year when students across the nation rush to their dorms, bid goodbye to their families, buy books, and crunch courses. Meanwhile, undocumented students are struggling between jobs and providing for their families – and dealing with the uncertainty of being able to attend college.
This is exactly what I have endured over the course of the college process, and over the past three years.
At the age of fifteen, I was forced to move from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to the United States in the cold winter of 2012. Vietnam’s evictions, engendered by poverty and corruption, left my parents with no choice but to abandon everything they had so that I could have a shot at “the American Dream.” I watched as they struggled to hang on to the little we had. I remember when, one afternoon, my dad told me “we’re moving.” I assumed that he meant to another house because of all the eviction notes we were getting in the mail, but he actually meant we were moving to the United States. As a naive teenager, I pretended this was a game, like the one with the frog crossing the road, except this was “Justin’s family crossing the Pacific Ocean.” Since my parents did not speak a word of English, I had to handle the entirety of the paperwork, from booking the interview to signing papers for the consulate, all in the name of pursuing an education and a better life.
Once I arrived to the United States, I immediately took a serving position at a local Pho restaurant in Pawtucket, RI. I worked this job while juggling AP classes, moving between motels and guest homes, and helping my parents pay rent and tuition for the private high school I was attending. For a year, my family crammed into a small one-bedroom apartment. I even rotated sleeping on the floor and on an air-mattress before we moved to Boston for better opportunities.
In Boston, I committed myself to academia, thinking that if I worked twice as hard as others I would be able to go to college, regardless of my undocumented status. By the end of my senior year, I had maxed out the number of schools I was allowed to apply to using the Common Application online (it is 20 schools in case you were wondering). I also applied to at least 15 different scholarships; won first place at the 2015 Boston city-wide Science Fair; became a finalist for the Intel International and Regional Science Fair; played on my school’s volleyball team and competed in the state championship in wrestling; was able to network with political figures through the Student Immigrant Movement as a regional organizer. I did more than I could possibly imagine; and yet, I was still denied from scholarships and universities simply due to my undocumented status.
I was on the brink of forfeiting, but against all odds, the Boston Scholar Athletes recognized my potential and awarded me a full two years tuition to attend the Roxbury Community College.
I am both thrilled to and terrified of going back to school this fall. I am excited simply because I have been given a shot to pursue my dream. It is not every day that an undocumented student receives full tuition to attend college; therefore, I feel an enormous pressure to succeed. On the other hand, I fear that I won’t be able to juggle providing for my family, completing my education, and advocating for my own rights. Living as an undocumented student comes with a bag full of uncertainty. I have an increasingly irrational fear of losing all that I have worked for in the blink of an eye.
With the odds and the broken U.S. immigration system clearly stacked against me, I see why nationally only 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates go on to college. This means that of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students that graduate every year, only 6,500 move on to higher education. An even smaller percentage of undocumented students actually graduates from college. There are students out there who are just as smart, determined and willing as myself, and yet they do not get to go to college due to their immigration status.
These circumstances are why I continue to fight for my dream and the dreams of hundreds of thousands of other hardworking undocumented students living in America.
Here in Massachusetts, the Student Immigrant Movement has launched a campaign call “Dare to Dream MA” to pass a legislation that would allow undocumented student to have access to in-state tuition with financial aid. We have fought tirelessly for this bill for what seems like an eternity. But for the first time in a long while, we finally have a shot of getting this bill out of the Joint Committee of Higher Education and onto the voting floor with backing from both parties. Even with these endless efforts and determination, we still encounter opposing forces that would love nothing more but to tear us down and destroy our progress.
Just imagine the possible revenue that undocumented immigrants could generate if they had higher paying jobs due to skills obtained through higher education. Undocumented immigrants are already paying taxes, and yet they are denied from reaping their benefits. In 2010, undocumented immigrants contributed $150 million in taxes to Massachusetts alone. Increased access to higher education will only make this contribution larger.
My future, and the futures of other undocumented immigrant students, should not be left up to chance. Education is a human right and there should be systemic avenues for everyone to access it.
Your undocumented neighbor,
Justin Nguyen Phuoc
Boston Regional Organizer, Student Immigrant Movement