On Giving Back

“When you work with undocumented students,” she said to the group, “You have to encourage them a lot. They’re used to giving up on themselves. Many of them finish the whole college application but then decide to not submit it.”

I sat at a table with two nerdy white guys and a Puerto Rican girl around my age, a few older white men, and a white girl. One man was retired and wanted something to do. Another, you could tell had been a hippy since his 20s. The girl was applying to grad school. One of the guys was originally from Chicago and was there to talk to us about the ACT. We were all there for orientation.

“They’re just like regular high schoolers. They care about what they look like, and wanna date, and have smart phones. But they’ve experienced more disappointment than the average American student. They’ve grown up hearing they don’t belong, being told No over and over again. A majority of our job is to make sure we’re encouraging them.”

I wanted to cry. Here I was, getting involved with Freedom University, preparing to train undocumented students on the SAT. And here was this woman who runs the program talking to me about how hard these kids have it. About what they need.

Where were they 10 years ago?

Imagine if they’d been around 15 years ago for my sister Mara.

15 years ago, we didn’t know what to do after high school. We were raised in the suburb with majority white Americans. The high school counselors weren’t ready to help us. When I had my review in 11th grade, after the counselor told me I was in good shape and should start looking into FAFSA, I told him I was undocumented. First, he didn’t really know what that meant. When I explained it to him, he said “Sorry, then. I don’t know how to help you.”

We didn’t know anything about the SAT. Was it not just a test they give you during the school year? We had to schedule it? We had to pay? There were ways to study? We found all this out late. Everyone was ahead of my sister.

Her counselor, early on in high school, removed her from the college prep track because she thought Mara should be a cook. When she graduated, she didn’t even know she hadn’t been on the right track that would allow her to go to college.

“So, do they speak English?” one of the older men asked.

“Yes! These kids have been here most their lives,” she seemed frustrated with the question, “A majority of them come to the US between the ages of 2 and 6. They were raised here. They speak English.”

And I’m happy I get to do this now. To give to these students what I never had. But there is a sadness inside me I can’t let go of. The what-ifs. The loss. The timing.

Now go read this article:

NPR’s article on Larissa Martinez and Mayte Lara Ibarra. Chelsea Beck/NPR.