Undocumented students cannot apply for federal financial aid or school loans, but that did not prevent one Mexican immigrant from working her way to become vice president in the Structured Products Team at Goldman Sachs.
Julissa Arce, 33, is this year’s guest graduation commencement speaker on June 7 at 6 p.m. in Rocky Young Park. Arce graduated with a degree in Finance from the University of Texas at Austin, where she commuted every weekend by Greyhound to San Antonio and sold funnel cakes to pay for school.
In her junior year, Arce received a 10-week summer internship at Goldman Sachs, which resulted in an accepted offer for a full time job. Arce said she gave much thought on how to stand out and hand wrote thank you notes after her internship.
“I was never so conscience of the fact that I’m a woman. I’m a Latina, and therefore this is going to be harder,” Arce said. “I went into it thinking I earned being here and I’m going to work as hard as I can.”
Arce entered the United States on a tourist visa from Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico when she was 11 years old. Her visa expired three years later. After San Antonio built a museum where her funnel cake stand stood, she acquired a forged green card so she could work.
“I got the fake documents because if I didn’t get a job, then I wouldn’t be able to stay in school, because I couldn’t even apply for loans,” Arce said.
She has since left Wall Street and co-founded in 2012 the ASCEND Educational Fund, which is a college scholarship program for immigrants, regardless of status, in New York City. Arce said it is one of the few scholarship opportunities undocumented students have.
“When I went to college there was zero resources for undocumented students,” Arce said. “It was a very lonely existence because I never would have even thought of telling anybody that I was undocumented.”
Now Arce is more than open with her story, and wrote a book ‘My (underground) American Dream’ that will be released on Sept 13, 2016. She never expected to author an autobiography, but feels you need to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities when they are presented.
“The book is one of my biggest, proudest accomplishments in my life,” Arce said. “I try to be as raw and as honest as possible about my journey and the emotions that came along with that journey.”
Sandra Delgado, a broadcasting major, is an undocumented student at Pierce who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 4 years old. Delgado believes Arce’s story is encouraging and said she wants to attend graduation to hear her speak.
“They think you are just going to be cleaning houses and that is why it is inspiring, because I never never once thought I would be in college, ever,” Delgado said. “That was not the plan for me. It is really inspiring to have someone talk to us and give us hope.”
Delgado also questions the motivation for Pierce College to choose an undocumented speaker because she does not think the actions of administration match the message.
Karen Ragazzo, president of the Dreamers, said it is a bright spot that Arce will speak, but only if it will lead to changes.
“How do you bring an undocumented speaker when you don’t have the work that she represents,” Ragazzo said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t fill me up. It’s hypocritical. There is a lot to be done in this school because there are no resources.”
While undocumented students cannot apply for federal financial aid, the 2011 California Dream act allows for AB 540 students to apply for assistance from the state, private scholarships and to pay in state tuition, which is $46 per unit opposed to $268 for out of state and international students.
Pierce College has more than 1,400 AB 540 students, according to the Dean of Student Engagement Juan Carlos Astorga. AB 540 students are not all undocumented. The two main requirements are that AB 540s must have attended high school in California for three years and be in the process of gaining legal status.
The California Pell Grant is only available to recently graduated high school students, which makes undocumented students who are a few years out of high school are ineligible, and they can only receive fee waivers, according to Anafafe Robinson, the director of financial aid. Robinson said more than 50 AB 540 students on campus qualified for pell grants.
“My role is to determine and process financial aid,” Robinson said. “Eligibility for AB 540 students is very restrictive. We go by the requirements.”
Robinson said that there was a financial aid workshop for AB 540 students. She will collaborate with Astorga and student groups on campus to help the information better reach students.
“I will work with Dean Astorga and probably have a Q&A session, because I think maybe it is just some miscommunication or misinformation that they think we don’t do anything,” Robinson said.
Ragazzo wants to create a resource center on campus that will have peer counselors and provide information on financial aid and which transfer schools are undocumented friendly.
“It is not the same process for an undocumented student as it is for a person who is documented,” Ragazzo said. “My whole goal with the [Dreamers] club on campus is a free open space where anyone who identifies with undocumented students can use educational resources to expand their education or college career.”
Astorga said California State University Northridge (CSUN) has a Dream Resource Center with staff, mentors and tutors available. He would like to mirror this at Pierce. He also thinks the welcome packet given to AB 540 students at Mt. San Antonio College is something Pierce can replicate and look to improve on.
“I would really like for us to develop our own undocumented student resource center on this campus, and be able to staff it where students have tutors and mentors available to them,” Astorga said. “A few of us on campus are starting to get an ad hok gathering of folks that would like to begin to start the conversation of what can we do as an institution.”
Arce said students must create space for themselves and it is amazing that students will say, “That is great you are bringing in a speaker, but these are the resources we actually need.”
“The biggest thing to realize is that you are going to have to keep doing that for the rest of your life”, Arce said. “For the rest of your life you are going to have to be your own biggest advocate. For the rest of your life you are going to have to create spaces and systems that work for you, and challenge systems that don’t work for you.”
Earic Peters, the vice president of student services, said Arce’s message is one of “overcoming many obstacles and keeping to your mission,” and he expects a lot of students to relate to her story. If her speech also brings awareness to faculty and creates conversation on the issues facing undocumented students on campus then Peters says he welcomes it.
“I don’t care what your political beliefs are, as a human being, as a person of this world, everyone should have a path to a better life,” Peters said.
“We have to start creating this pipeline so that the students now can become faculty, be on the staff, could be the president of the college and help set that agenda,” Arce said. “You’ve gotta have people at the top who are also advocating for you.”
Arce found her path and is thrilled to be voting in her first election after becoming an American citizen in August of 2014. She hopes to inspire others and make the road easier for them than it was for her.