Student Perseveres Despite Uncertain Future

El Vaquero News Editor

Editors note: The name of the student “Carlos” has been changed to protect his identity.

An anxious 12-year-old boy looks around apprehensively as he walks down the hallway of a Los Angeles middle school, feeling lost as he is jostled around by a busy crowd of students. He listens to the buzz of conversation around him, barely understanding a word of English and almost overcome by the feeling of being the new boy in a new school in a new country.

Twelve years later, 24-year-old “Carlos” confidently walks down the halls of GCC. Now a hotel and restaurant management (HRM) major at the college, the once timid boy has become an optimistic dreamer who is undaunted by the fact that he is a fugitive from the government, an undocumented student who has no legal status in the United States.

“If you want an education, you need to work hard and look for possibilities,” said Carlos. He is in his third year at the college and plans to transfer to either Cal Poly Pomona or the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV) to earn his bachelor’s degree in HRM.

Born and raised in Mexico, Carlos crossed the border into California with his mother in 1994. He was reunited with his younger brother and father; the latter passed away a few years later. His mother, who had first come to the state in the mid-1970s, remarried later on, but to this day, she has not attained legal status and remains undocumented.

Regardless of their trials, Carlos’ family has worked hard to earn a living, establishing a home-based business of making tablecloths and selling them wholesale to hotels and restaurants.

“I can’t work [legally], so my parents are helping me now [with educational costs],” said Carlos. He had been previously employed “under the table” in a number of jobs, meaning that he had to be employed discreetly, paid in cash and was not allowed to fill out any tax forms. None of these jobs paid well.

As he began his education in California, Carlos said he went through a “tough transition.”

“I had no knowledge of the educational system here, and I was barely learning the language.”

High school was especially challenging for Carlos. “Freshman year was the worst year,” he said. He had attended John Marshall High School in Los Angeles. “My English teacher didn’t even know English that well, so she didn’t really help.”

Carlos reflected that his performance improved later on, but the pressure of adjusting became too much that he dropped out at the age of 16.

He started at GCC in 2003 as an AB 540 student. AB 540 is a law that allows illegal immigrants who have completed three years of high school in the state to apply for regular fees at colleges.
“[GCC] is amazing,” Carlos said. “It’s a friendly campus that welcomes everyone. I’m comfortable here, and people have helped me out, advised me-I can’t ask for more.”

He particularly mentioned his culinary arts instructor, Andrew Feldman. “He’s been more than a teacher. He’s been an adviser, a mentor and a friend.”

Feldman said that Carlos “is an excellent student.”

“He has a strong personal interest in the hospitality field and has the requisite academic and personal skills to be very successful,” Feldman added.

Carlos said that he prefers to study in UNLV, not only because it has an excellent HRM program, but also because it may give him the opportunity to work in a Las Vegas hotel after graduating. This could guarantee him a work visa and eventually, a legal immigrant status in this county.

“It will be a lot easier to get a [work visa] sponsor from a big company like a hotel,” Carlos said. “But it’s a really long process and the employer has to see to it that no one else qualifies {to fill the position].”

According to Carlos, only a few companies are willing to sponsor their employees for working visas because the process is long and tedious, usually requiring the employer to pay a monthly fee of $3,000 to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Aside from the challenge of obtaining legal status, Carlos currently has to contend with school-related difficulties, such as paying for books and tuition, because as an undocumented student, he cannot apply for financial aid.

Counselor Greg Perkins, who works closely with AB 540 students like Carlos, said that “it’s been very challenging for undocumented students, because they can’t get financial assistance.”

“We can’t drive or get a well-paying job,” Carlos added. “We can’t just apply to any university, and if we do, it’s either we can’t afford it or they won’t accept us.”

Despite this, Carlos believes that obstacles are a matter of perspective. “If you really want something, you can do it no matter what,” he said. “It’s something we have in the Latino culture. We do what it takes to get to where we want to go.”
Feldman has noticed his student’s indomitable spirit. “[Carlos’] enthusiasm is tempered by the difficulties he faces because of his immigration status,” said the instructor. “Despite this, he remains committed to creating his own successful future.”

Indeed, Carlos has big dreams for his future. “I like to be moving around,” he said. “I’d like to go to Europe. My goal is also to go back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. My goal is not to stay here [in California] forever.”

His concern for his fellow Mexicans also shines through. One of his goals is to establish his own hotel in Mexico and to purchase franchises of American companies and take them to Mexico so that he can provide jobs for his countrymen.

“I want to try to fight illegal immigration,” he said. “My people risk their lives for better pay. If they’re given what they need in their own country and paid fair wages, they don’t have to come here.”

Carlos believes that the situation of undocumented students is “hard, but not impossible.”

“There is always a way, but you just have to look for it,” he said. “Keep going until you reach your goal.”