by Fermín Mendoza, ’11
I remember waking up at Yale on my friend’s couch and thinking, “I am not supposed to be here.” It was the beginning of Bulldog Days, a time for admitted Yale undergraduates to visit the college, meet prospective classmates, and see whether the school was an appropriate personal fit. Though Yale admissions assigned me to sleep in the room of an undergraduate host I had never met, I called an alumnus from my high school enrolled in the college and stayed with her instead. As I lay on her couch and the morning sun filled the old dorm room, I felt like I had just woken up from one of those dreams you never want to leave, and suddenly I realized: I was actually living it. I had made it. I was admitted into one of the top schools in the country—the alma mater of several presidents around the world and the rest of its elite. Except, once I thought I would not even get into college.
I was born and raised less than two miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border in a tiny town with dirt roads. When I was four, my family migrated from Mexico to the United States in search of a better life. My dad had already started working in the fields of the U.S. and bringing money back every few weeks, but when my third sibling was born and it became even harder to put food on the table, my parents decided we would all chase the “American Dream.” Mom says she and dad never planned to permanently stay in the U.S. Still, within a few weeks of moving in with my uncle in Texas, I was going to kindergarten. The U.S. government gave my family permission to be in the country for only a few days, so very soon we became undocumented—“illegals”, as some citizens would call us.
My parents nearly worked themselves to death so that their kids could have a chance at graduating from college. Dad, who had been a bank teller and restaurant manager in his home country, took a job here in construction as a roofer, one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. Mom started taking care of other parents’ kids during the day, but eventually she found a job at a dry cleaners, probably one of the hottest jobs in the country with the right mix of heat from the Texas summer and the machines she used to iron designer clothes—clothes she dreamed of designing and making herself. We did not know if undocumented students could get scholarships to attend college, much less if we would be deported by then, but my family put our faith in excellent public K-12 education. When teachers did not live up to my mom’s expectations, she would make me demand more from them. After all, as my mom put it, my parents were financing my instructors with their property tax dollars.
Though I did not know this then, we had the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe (1982) to thank for making our schools the safe zones we found them to be, as the decision guarantees undocumented children across the country a free public K-12 education. In middle school I was fortunate to enroll in one of the best public schools in the nation—a college preparatory middle and high school serving primarily low-income, first generation college-bound Latinos. With a mission of increasing the number of low-income students graduating from a four-year college, YES Prep Southeast does not confer your diploma unless you gain college admission. At age 17, I was the first in the charter school’s history to get the highest possible score on the AP English Language and Composition exam, I had attained the highest combined SAT score and one of the highest GPAs in school history, and I graduated as the valedictorian of my class.
I never attempted to hide my undocumented status from the universities I applied to. My mission at Yale Bulldog Days was not just to meet potential classmates and professors, but also to ask Yale for more financial aid based on my inability to work in the country. It was my honesty about my immigration status that partially helped me get full financial aid from Stanford. Technically, Stanford admitted me through its international student pool, where there is no access to U.S. government funds for financial aid, and only private university money subsidizes students with financial need. Stanford chose to fund my entire budget, eliminating my own contribution because it knew I could not legally work to generate income in the country.
As I walked through Yale’s ancient gothic buildings to the financial aid office during Bulldog Days, I remembered the viewbook I perused back home when I first considered applying to Yale as a high school senior. I had looked at the list of notable alumni and thought that if I could just get into Yale, I could prove to the United States that I belonged here and that I, too, could leave a mark on the world. I entered the financial aid office ready to make my case, with documents about my family’s income and a copy of Stanford’s financial aid package in hand. Almost instantly a young woman called me into her office. I sat across from her desk and laid out my evidence before her.
“What brings you to the financial aid office today?” she asked.
“I’ve been accepted to several schools and was hoping Yale could match some of their financial aid packages,” I answered. I handed her a copy of Stanford’s financial aid package. “As you can see, Stanford is not requiring an individual contribution.”
Looking over my documents, she explained, “What probably happened is that Stanford has some information about your family’s financial situation that we don’t.”
“I submitted the same information to both schools,” I insisted.
“Yale’s philosophy is that students benefit from contributing financially to their own education. As such, we cannot eliminate your student contribution,” she expanded.
“I am undocumented. I don’t have work authorization and thus there is no way I can make money to pay for my education,” I pleaded.
“Well, Yale still hopes that you would find a way to make money somehow over the summers, like mowing lawns,” she finished.
Noticing that she would not budge, I gave up. I decided I would consider making my case to Yale again some other time. “Thank you for your time,” I politely concluded as I stood up to leave the room.
Even though I did not feel completely welcomed there, I was sad to leave Yale. Bulldog Days was my first comprehensive orientation to an elite university, and I quickly fell in love with the place. I had a plane to catch to the other side of the country, though. My destination: Stanford Admit Weekend.
At Stanford, I met up with mom and my high school college counselor. My high school was kind enough to cover my mom’s flight to Palo Alto for the weekend. My college counselor and I felt that mom would be more comfortable letting me leave Texas for four years if she actually visited the place I might potentially call home.
As I picked up my name tag from the Admit Weekend registration table at the Arrillaga Alumni Center, I met an old man who had high hopes for me.
“Have you decided whether you’re coming here next year?” he asked nicely.
“No. I’m considering other schools as well,” I shyly admitted.
“What decision is there to make?” he joked. “This is the best school in the country. Think about it: you can finish undergrad here and go to grad school. You’ll have a bachelor’s and a master’s from Stanford!” He smiled enthusiastically. It was a nice idea so I savored it for a bit.
Later that weekend I met with my Stanford admission officer, mom, and college counselor for breakfast at the “Desayuno Como Hecho En Casa” event sponsored by the Stanford Latino community. I admitted to my admission officer that I was still considering Yale.
“I go through all the trouble of getting you into Stanford and working around your undocumented status and still you’re undecided?” he joked.
The contrast between Yale’s hesitation to fully fund my education based on its strict philosophy of enforcing individual student contribution and Stanford’s complete support despite my undocumented status could not have been sharper than at that moment. On Stanford’s opening day, its first president declared the university to be “hallowed by no traditions” and “hampered by none.” He would be proud to know that Stanford continues to live up to its motto, “The wind of freedom blows.” It is that very spirit of freedom and questioning that ultimately led me to choose Stanford and enroll as a wide-eyed freshman ready to take on the world.
During the first few weeks of freshman year, I Googled a lot of terms that were unfamiliar to me as a first-generation college student, including “postdoc” and “GMAT.” I thought I might want to go to grad school in the future, and I wanted to aim high. I clicked through the Harvard Law School and Stanford Graduate School of Business websites. “Above all, be authentic,” one of the many speakers during New Student Orientation urged the Stanford Class of 2011. I remembered this when I met with my assigned academic advisor one of the first times.
“How are your first few weeks at Stanford going?” she asked.
“Classes have been hard but I’m adjusting well,” I focused on academics. We spoke about my course schedule and talked about computer systems engineering, my intended major at the time. Then I said, “I have also been thinking about graduate school and wanted to talk to you about it. I’m curious about what the admission process is like for undocumented students.”
“Let’s look at some public schools in California,” she suggested.
I was not sure why she wanted to focus on public schools in California. I was not even from California. I grew frustrated and led the conversation in a different direction.
“I was actually thinking about Stanford,” I told her.
“We don’t accept undocumented students in the School of Engineering,” she told me. I grew even more frustrated.
“Why is that?” I asked skeptically.
She then continued to talk about forms I had never heard of in my life. She said that as an undocumented person, I would be unable to provide the required documentation for my grad school application.
“If I had listened to people who said I could not attend Stanford undergrad because of my immigration status, I would not be here right now,” I retorted.
“This is different,” she insisted. We finished talking about California public schools and wrapped up our meeting.
I left her office and walked into the Stanford Main Quad. Over and over again during Stanford New Student Orientation administrators assured freshmen that none of us had been mistakenly admitted. With those words, Stanford tried to assuage the worries of students who felt they were not cut out for its academic rigor. I was confident enough in my academic preparation from high school that I rarely questioned whether Stanford had incorrectly assessed my abilities.
I could still hear the words of my academic advisor echoing through my head: “We don’t accept undocumented students in the School of Engineering.” As I walked under the blinding sun and sky-reaching palm trees emblematic of Stanford’s campus, I thought to myself, “Maybe my advisor was right. Maybe I can’t get into Stanford grad school.” I thought about the four college years ahead of me.
“Maybe,” I considered, “I really don’t belong here.”
In June of 2011, Fermín graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in public policy. He now lives with his parents in Houston, where he continues to explore ways to generate income despite his inability to work legally in the country. He plans to continue his immigrant and LGBT rights activism in the meantime. If you have ideas for how he can sustain himself financially or want to fund his advocacy efforts, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.