This is the twenty-third article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.
“Education is important to me because it helps empower people. I grew up in East Palo Alto and there were a lot of negative misconceptions about the neighborhood at the time. People would be like, ‘Wow, you’re from EPA and you haven’t gotten shot yet!’ which was really hard to hear about my community, especially as a young kid. People didn’t think that kids from EPA could or even wanted to go to college, that they didn’t need the resources the area lacked and still lacks to this day. I decided I wanted to go into the field of education to help uplift my community, to change that misconception of people raised in my town, and to help empower other minority, female, and low-income students,” said Lucía Esperanza,* a recent college graduate with a passion for science and helping others. Esperanza overcame many obstacles, including her status as an undocumented immigrant, to become the first person in her family to graduate from university.
Esperanza was born in Apatzingán, Mexico. She immigrated to the U.S. when she was nine, starting third grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in East Palo Alto. She remembered, “My teacher was from Spain, so she would check in with me every so often to make sure that I understood the content. Obviously I didn’t for the first few years because I didn’t know English yet, but I learned. I can’t even remember when I started speaking English for the first time. As a little kid you can pick up languages a lot easier.”
“We came here because of the American Dream, the American life,” she added. “My mom didn’t graduate from high school—she had me when she was 18, and my younger sister a few years later. She wanted a better life for us, for us to go to school and get a proper education. She enjoyed school and was a great student, but there were not a lot of academic opportunities for her to take advantage of like I was offered here. She encouraged me and my sister to focus on school and made sure we had other educated role models to look up to. She signed us up for lots of different programs from a young age, so we never felt like we didn’t have the support we needed.”
“It was kind of a culture shock when I first came to M-A. I was raised in East Palo Alto, so I didn’t know anything else. When I came to M-A, there were all these people who didn’t look like me. But I was glad that I could find a community there.”
Esperanza was part of the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. She remembered, “AVID was a great community—all my friends were in it too. The program really helped me get organized and plan and learn how to take notes. My teacher Ms. [Rachel] Andres was so amazing. She always made sure we were on track and didn’t fall behind. Ms. Andres inspired me to want to become a teacher too.”
One of Esperanza’s favorite classes in high school was Lance Powell’s AP Environmental Science course. She remembered, “The best part about APES was that we could explore and do things we were interested in instead of just taking notes all the time. We did a lot of experiments, including aquaponics—the coolest thing ever—which involved growing our own vegetables in water using fish. We got to eat some of the vegetables at the end. Mr. Powell is the reason I decided to go get an environmental science degree.”
“Science allows you to learn so much about the world and question it as well,” Esperanza said. She won an award at M-A for a science fair project where she researched sustainable food systems including water-saving and seasonal crops.
Every day after school, she traveled from M-A to College Track, a program in East Palo Alto that helps first-generation students enroll in college. “College Track took a lot of time, but it was mostly fun because all my friends from M-A, mostly the same group from AVID, went too,” she remembered. “We did community service and SAT prep. It was hard work, but there was also fun and creativity sprinkled in. We did some dance classes, took a women’s history class, and painted a mural.”
Esperanza also participated in the East Palo Alto Stanford Academy, a service-learning program in which Stanford students mentor and tutor middle school students in the Ravenswood City School District. “We went on field trips to museums like the California Academy of Sciences, which is my favorite place in the entire world,” she said.
Esperanza didn’t know that she was undocumented until she began applying to college. She started filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but realized she didn’t have the proper documentation, so she had to apply to the DREAM Act and earn financial aid through local merit scholarships instead. She explained, “That was the biggest challenge of my life. I was so young when I came to the U.S.—I didn’t understand what was happening. It was really difficult for me to be in that situation during my senior year. Thankfully, I was able to apply to a lot of local scholarships like the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club. It took a long time to do all those interviews and make sure I carried myself in the way they wanted the students to carry themselves—as confident and powerful. I was just a kid.”
“It is so extremely hard to have the grades, the GPA, the right everything, to have worked so hard to be ready for college and then to be told no because of your immigration status—something you can’t control.”
“No one told me that I had to go to college, but I always kind of had the idea in the back of my mind,” she continued. “I thought that all of my parents’ hard work and my hard work could amount to it. Being undocumented put a roadblock in my way, so I had to find a way to push it out of the way. It was just hard-headedness, honestly. At 17, no one was really advising me on what to do—they were just letting me do whatever I wanted. I really loved science and learning and I wanted to continue my education. I’m really glad that I did. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had just given up.”
Esperanza attended the University of California, Merced with her tuition completely covered—in fact, she earned so many scholarships that she was gaining money each semester. She said, “I am extremely grateful to the M-A college counselors, Ms. Kleeman and Ms. Nguyen. They were so on top of everything and always made sure we got our scholarship applications in on time. I knew that I had to get enough scholarships to graduate debt-free because neither I nor my parents were able to apply for loans.”
“I really valued the quietness at UC Merced. In the Bay Area, M-A, East Palo Alto, it feels like everything is on the go. There’s noise everywhere. In Merced, I would wake up in peace. It felt like time was moving slower there.”
Esperanza was just getting settled into college when another obstacle arose: she caught a bad case of the flu, and the virus began to attack her liver. She remembered, “One night, I started throwing up and then passed out. I was going into liver failure. My roommate called an ambulance. I was admitted to the hospital and put in a medically induced coma for three days. It was very scary. They didn’t know if I was going to wake up. I remember when I woke up and my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I missed four days of school? I had tests!’ My mom was like, ‘You’re not going back to school.’ So we made a deal that I would stay at home for a month and then go back to school. I had one teacher who was not understanding at all when I went back. She really made it difficult for me to get my grade up. I put so much time and energy into the class because I just wanted to show her, ‘I can do this, I can take your English class,’ and I was one of only a couple students who got an A at the end of the semester.”
Esperanza recovered and studied Environmental Science, taking twice as many courses as some of her classmates in order to earn a teaching credential on top of her undergraduate degree. She said, “I took many science, math, and engineering courses, and then you’re required to teach to earn your credential, so I taught two Forensic Biology courses at a nearby high school. It definitely pushed me. I had to grade their papers while also focusing on my own schoolwork, and there was not a lot of help. You are really a teacher at that point. You go to professional development meetings and set up lab materials. It was difficult to balance at times. Nobody else around me was doing the credential. I was the only one. I wrote a giant final essay—70-80 pages long—recording myself teaching and talking about different concepts. It was crazy, and I was taking final exams for my regular courses at the same time. But my students were extremely supportive and I learned a lot.”
“I am grateful for the obstacles I have had to overcome because they have enabled me to grow personally and mentally. And because of them, I have been able to connect with so many wonderful people along the way.”
Two of Esperanza’s favorite courses were an ocean science course and a soils course. She explained, “I love the ocean, and that professor was the sweetest person. I got to do some research with him. He helped me learn about the different stages of the water cycle and hurricane seasons. The soils class was great as well—I know it sounds kind of boring to learn about soil, but it was actually really cool. When you think about it, everything grows in soil, everything comes from soil. UC Merced has a land preserve with a really interesting ecosystem so we got to do field trips there to investigate the soil.”
“I was lucky that there were so many great support programs at Merced,” Esperanza added. “There was a helpful student tutor program called the Peer Assisted Learning Support (PALS) program, and I also did a program called Fiat Lux that was similar to College Track.” She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Earth Systems Science and a Natural Science Education Credential.
Since Esperanza is undocumented, she now cannot work as a teacher. She said, “It was so tough to put in all that hard work and then be told that I can’t work as a teacher. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
So, she worked as a special needs teacher’s aide for about a year, and then found a job helping people sign up for public benefits. She explained, “My job now is really just helping people. We help people sign up for public benefits, people who call us and say, ‘My house is falling apart,’ or, ‘I can’t pay my bills.’ It’s a lot of single mothers and elderly people. I absolutely love it. I know a lot of adults don’t like their jobs, but I wake up every day and I’m like, ‘Okay, I have to go to work, but I get to help people!’”
“I don’t know if I’ll find a way to teach, or if teaching is going to be the right fit for me. Maybe I’ll go back to school and get a Master’s degree, or find a job in tech,” she said.
On her favorite books, Esperanza said, “Right now I’m reading They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, which is a story about two boys who get a phone call telling them they only have one day left to live. I also enjoyed a book called All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson; it’s a first person narrative of a Black, LGBTQ man. He writes about trauma but also about resilience and how that trauma has impacted his life for the good. I absolutely recommend it to everyone.”
Esperanza’s advice to current M-A students: “Find the right community. That’s definitely easier said than done, but at M-A your community senior year probably won’t be the same community you started out with freshman year. It’s going to change throughout high school—and college, and life. So, make a conscious effort to find the right people who will support you and really motivate you to do what you want to do.”
To other undocumented students, she added: “The place where I am today was never in my mind while I was in high school. As an undocumented student, all I faced were roadblocks and people saying no. However, I realized that if I wanted a better life, the one my family moved here for me to have, then I would have to find the person that would say yes and that person was within me. Only I had the power to push myself extremely hard and believe in myself. I encourage you to believe in yourself, and no matter how difficult it seems, to keep going.”
*Note: Lucía Esperanza is not the real name of the individual profiled. She is an undocumented immigrant, so the author of this article used a pseudonym to protect her identity. All other details presented are accurate.
The author would like to emphasize the importance of protecting the rights and dignity of Dreamers and undocumented immigrants, who often face immense challenges in their daily lives. We chose the first name Lucía, derived from luz, the Spanish word for light, and the surname Esperanza, the Spanish word for hope, because there is so much hope, light, and resilience woven through her story and through others like hers. The author hopes that this article will contribute to a greater understanding of the struggles faced by undocumented immigrants and will help promote greater empathy, compassion, and justice for all people, regardless of their immigration status.
If you or someone you know is a current undocumented high school student, there are resources available to support you. Check out organizations such as Immigrants Rising, United We Dream, or TheDream.US, or stop by the College and Career Center on campus for guidance and information on scholarships, legal assistance, and more.