Leaving My Undocumented Life, Starting My College Life

DeBug's own, Adrian Avila at San Jose State University. He made history as the first person in his whole family lineage to attend a 4 year University and has overcome all the struggles as an undocumented youngin' crossin the border with his mama, who raised him as a single mom and still able to be a successful artist, graphic designer, and business owner.

Today I walked onto the San Jose State University campus, walking against the crowds of new students like myself, excited for our first day. Walking through thousands of students, anxious for their college life -- a day to leave family and step into adulthood.

But for me, this was the day I would bring my whole family with me, a legacy of changing an entire educational history for us.

My mother and I crossed the U.S. Mexico border 24 years ago. One thing we shared in common that most children don't share with a parent was an educational background of a sixth grader. I was only five and had only completed kindergarten and my mother only got as far as the sixth. Her family was very poor and could not afford for her attend school. She had to start working odd jobs in order to provide for the family.

It had always been my mother's dream for me to get a higher level of education that she could only dream about. I started that dream for her in the U.S. when I re-took kindergarten. I jumped right in like I was born here.

I can't remember a day when I wasn't able to learn something in this country. I feel like every day is a learning experience, from traditional schooling to the school of the streets. I've always wanted to better my self with knowledge so that I may one day hold my head up high, take a look around remembering where I started from, and how far one can go if one never stops trying.

Throughout the many years of being undocumented, the situation wasn't right at times. But I never could stop and had to keep moving.

 (The author walking through the graphic design department of San Jose State University photo by J.Melesaine)

I attended San Jose City College right after high school back in a time where it was not so cool to be undocumented. There was a lot of talk of deportations and that fear was always in the back of my mind. What if I were to be deported back to a country I have very little familiarity with? I couldn’t let that fear stop me from doing the best that I could with the opportunities I had at the moment. I was attending an institution that was advancing my knowledge and setting up a foundation to build upon.

In the summer of 2005 I received my Associates of Arts degree (AA) in graphic design from San Jose City College. It was a big moment for me because it was one step closer to seeing my mother's dream come to life. Traditionally one would transfer to a four-year institution after community college, but in my case it was the end of the road. 

At the time of my graduation I had lived in the U.S. for 15 years as an undocumented student, so when it came time for me to transfer, I had a real situation on my hands. I could apply to San Jose State and hope to get in, but then I would still have to figure out how to pay for it. It’s easier said than done when you are undocumented.

Even if I was available to apply for financial aid, which I was not, there would be no way for me to pay back the loans due to the fact that I was still undocumented and would have no legal way of working after school was completed.

Being undocumented means I was never allowed to work in this country because a lack of a valid social security number. So even if I were to have gotten in to State back in '05 I would have been stuck with a huge bill and no real means of paying it back.

Fast forward to today. 2014. I am no longer undocumented, meaning it is no longer "illegal" for me to physically be in the U.S. but also to be educated in the U.S.

In 2011 I was granted a U-Visa (a non-immigrant visa which is set aside for victims of crime), which gave me legal status and an opportunity to live life without fear of deportation.

So now that I have a path to citizenship the path back to fulfill my mother's dream is back on.

                    (The author testing screenprints for T-Shirts in his printing shop photo by Daniel Zapien)

As I walked on to campus I felt happy, nervous, excited and most of all a sense of pride, mainly because I knew that this was a path that my family had never seen. But what I don’t feel anymore is fear. I can’t express enough how much fear can play with your thoughts. How much it can hold you back from achieving and how free you can feel when it is lifted. I wonder at times if I have any kind of PTSD from growing up undocumented in the U.S. for so long. I don’t know if I do or don’t, or what it would even look like, but I know that I want to put my best foot forward regardless of the obstacles life might put in my way.

I know that it will be a struggle to work full time, run a small business, go to school and do homework but I welcome it. I think back on all the struggles that my mother and I had to face here when we first arrived to this country, struggles that we face to this day.

I think back on those moments, trying to find the strength and courage that my mother must have had when making the decision to leave her whole life behind in pursuit of a better and more promising life for me.

I am thankful to have a support team that is there for me in my moments of struggle and can aid me in seeing a clear path to accomplishment. I hope that those that stepped onto campuses all over the country for the first time find success not only for them but also for their families and community that they are taking with them.

About Adrian Avila

Adrian Avila


A designer and artist, Avila writes and posts articles and images that offer a window into the realities of a younger generation of immigrant America.

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