DREAMers at the U: One step to graduation

Story and photo by SHAUN AJAY

What does it feel like when you walk into a classroom? Do you fear integration? Assimilation? Deportation? Do you worry about your immigration status?

More undocumented immigrants, predominantly Latinx, enter the country and face daily challenges with their legal status, work, livelihood and education. Misconceptions have quickly spread that undocumented folks cannot pursue higher education and consequently secure a better job. Rivarola’s story tells us otherwise.

Alonso Rafael Reyna Rivarola was an undocumented immigrant himself. He moved to the United States from Peru at the age of 11 and has lived in Utah ever since. He attended the University of Utah in 2008 — a time when the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals policy, or DACA, did not exist. The DACA policy began in June 2012, right before Rivarola was finishing his final year at school. During his undergraduate years studying sociology, he worked with a group of scholars called The Mestizo Arts and Activism Collective. The group created a website that continues to serve as a center of information on the undocumented community and experience. It offers a list of scholarship resources for first-generation POC (people of color) college students and DREAMers (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors).

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Rivarola poses in front of a collage of DREAMers.

Fast forward to his master’s program in educational leadership and policy. Rivarola wrote a piece on the importance of undocumented student centers. A DREAMer himself, he became the first director of the Dream Center in the state of Utah in 2017. His personal experience allows him to provide support and services to students much like himself. “We work with everyone who enters our doors; those who are historically forgotten in higher education,” he said. Rivarola also became the first advisor at the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs (CESA). In that role, he focuses on working with other undocumented students on campus.

The Dream Center consists of a four-person team that works with undocumented students and their families to facilitate their academic success and graduation. The center helps students with their academic pathway, from individual mentorship to scholarship support. 

The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2018 that Hispanics are now Utah’s largest minority. They comprise 14 percent of the state’s population, or 434,288 people. 

In Utah, some laws were made to help undocumented students access more affordable education, provided they have graduated from a local high school. For example, HB 144 allows these students to pay in-state tuition. But inversely, a law passed in 2009, SB 81, prevents them from receiving private funding. And now, under SB 253, passed in 2015, students can access federal benefits for their education. 

It’s a complex system that the Dream Center has to work with. And for those who are affected, the question, “Will I be able to afford college?” always lingers silently under the bills that pass in the country or state.

For the Latinx community, whether undocumented or not, higher education is a steep climb that many cannot risk to take. Jasmin Valdivia is a 21-year-old Latina, born and raised in Provo, a city just along the Wasatch Mountain Front. Her parents had both migrated from Mexico. In 2016, she graduated from high school in a majority white neighborhood in Springville. During her high school years, Valdivia involved herself with ballet, orchestra, and cheer — activities that weren’t typical for Latinas, she said.

“I knew what was expected of me as a minority,” she said. Valdivia compared her outsider-insider position of living in Utah to holding a snow globe and looking inside. In her last year of high school, her school counselor only recommended Utah Valley University — a school, she said, that most Latinx students attended. Valdivia considers herself to be an adamant person. She believed in her own abilities and didn’t subject herself to the stereotypes that people imposed on her. She applied and was accepted to the University of Utah Asia Campus, located in South Korea.

Valdivia is the first in her family to attend college. She said her mother graduated from high school and her dad from elementary school. Her grandfather can barely read or write in Spanish. Her first cousin attended a semester in college before getting pregnant and dropping out. A majority of her Latinx friends do fall into the stereotype of settling with just a high school degree. “It’s usually the cultural issue of, ‘Well, my parents didn’t go to college and they’re doing fine,’ and when you think like that, you start to limit yourself,” she said

Valdivia said a friend of hers was brought illegally to the U.S from Mexico. She was a straight-A student in school and a talented musician in her orchestra. Valdivia also said her friend, due to her legal status, was unable to get financial aid to pursue a good music program in college. Now, three years since high school, Valdivia’s friend is still unable to attend university.

What Valdivia hopes to see is a system that is more supportive of giving the Latinx population equal opportunities to pursue their ambitions. She is currently working on her bachelor’s degree in communication and aspires to work in the news field to represent her culture and ethnicity.

With representation on one hand and education on the other, Dream Center Director Rivarola said he believes these elements should work together. He wants more Latinxs pursuing education and eventually become future professors, teachers and paraprofessionals. He said a lot of Latinx students learn typically in their second language, as opposed to their native Spanish. Seeing teachers like themselves serves as an important indicator to strive for success and ultimately leads them to different fields of studies. The Dream Center at the University of Utah remains an active system for any student to reach out to and ask for help.