As the national debate over immigration continues, the voices that often get shouted down are those of young people, those who were brought to the United States without documentation and given a pathway to legal status via a work permit, only to have the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, repealed from under them.
“It’s definitely been stressful, and it’s definitely been heartbreaking,” says Kenia Lopez, a former DACA recipient. “But more than heartbreaking for myself, it’s just so inhumane the way that people are being treated. But it motivates me to know that there’s a lot of work to do.”
Though Lopez came to this country long before either DACA or the current administration’s immigration crackdown, she’s gone through hardships during her school years as well. She still remembers, for instance, the sting from when she was told that, despite her hard work, her immigration status would mean she wouldn’t be able to attend college.
“It really broke my heart, because I didn’t think it was fair,” she says, in a quick, yet still thoughtful, manner, seemingly daring the listener to keep up. “I went to high school with this idea of being involved and getting good grades, and I challenged myself to take honors classes, and be in extra-curricular activities, and now you’re telling me it was all worthless.”
This was another obstacle placed in her way, one more in a list that started when she was brought by her mother, with no documentation, to this country in the middle of 5th grade, one month shy of her 11th birthday. And it’s another that she would overcome, thanks to her persistence and intellect.
It is stories like hers that motivate Immigranted, a non-profit offerings no-interest loans to first- and second-generation immigrants that can be used for any reason, be it tuition cost or transportation to and from campus.
For Lopez, the journey to college started with her mother, a single parent, taking a chance on uprooting herself and her daughter from Mexico and coming to the United States. Lopez had to leave behind all that she knew, including her family, on an act of faith. From a practical standpoint, she also had to quickly learn a new language and culture. Even as she hit middle school, college wasn’t even a thought.
“I grew up with a single parent and mom didn’t go to college,” she says. “I had no idea what college was. But I also knew for some reason that a high school degree wasn’t going to be enough.”
She doubled down on her school work and her extracurriculars, but it wasn’t until a meeting with her high school counselor that she even thought that her immigration status would be an issue. Lopez would not accept no as a final answer, though, and continued her research. She eventually found a college counselor who had a similar background and kept up with opportunities for undocumented students. And at the end of an exhaustive search, Lopez found the right school, one that provided enough financial support for her to attend California State University Northridge (CSUN, for short).
At CSUN, there’s a freshman convocation, where new students are gathered and given a welcome and advice from two people: One, a recent graduate, and the other, the most recent winner of the Diane Harrison Leadership Award, given annually to the freshman who displays leadership regularly around campus.
Sitting in the audience, listening to those speakers, Lopez felt something change.
“I told myself that I have a fresh beginning here, and I can be that person next year,” she said of watching the Harrison Award winner. “I kind of said it in a way where I was going to try my hardest, but never thought in a million years that I would have the opportunity to be that person. My motivation shifted.”
Lopez would go on to win that award on her way to a sterling college career. She maintained a 3.6 GPA while eventually being voted vice president of the student body, working as a University Ambassador and even interning for the Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C.
But the crowning achievement of her college career was the creation of the CSUN Student Legal Support Clinic, where third-year immigration law students help undocumented students explore their rights. It’s been an important resource on the campus, and a popular one — especially after the 2016 election and the end of the DACA program.
“We didn’t realize how much this legal clinic was going to help,” she says. “We didn’t know how the election was going to turn out. Unfortunately, it turned out a way we didn’t want, but we were grateful that we had that support system in place for students. And when DACA was taken away last year, there was never a time that the clinic was empty. Students were always going in to ask questions about immigration — not just for themselves, but for their families.”
There’s no rest for the weary, however. Lopez graduated this past semester and is already beginning her master’s degree program at the University of Southern California. It’s a five-semester course of study at one of the most expensive schools in the area.
And that’s when she found Immigranted, through a counselor at USC. Her life story and commitment to service lined up precisely with the organization’s goals: providing interest-free loans to promising immigrant students via its “infinity giving” program — as one student pays down a loan, that money goes out in the form of a loan for another student. Lopez’s story is so compelling, Immigranted was immediately interested — even if she didn’t come to the organization in a traditional manner.
“We don’t typically allow students to apply online. We prefer a referral [or] introduction. However, she was strong in her first email,” recalls Vishal Sharma, one of Immigranted’s founders.
When Lopez graduated from California State University Northridge and decided to pursue her master’s degree at University of Southern California, Immigranted stepped up with its organization’s largest loan to date to make sure she could go straight from commencement to her post-graduate degree program.
“I honestly don’t think I would have been able to take the summer classes if it wasn’t for them,” Lopez says.
“She’s a great Immigranted recipient because she is headstrong, stands up for what she believes in, always is interested in helping others, and is a great member of the student body community,” says co-founder Mohit Jain. “We are so grateful to extend Kenia a loan to continue her postgraduate studies at USC and pursue her dreams. We can’t wait to see what she achieves next!”
Immigranted’s mission is to provide interest-free, micro-loans to first and second-generation immigrants seeking or achieving higher education. We’re seeking to raise $200k this year to provide more than 40 students the relief they need to focus on their studies and not where they’ll get their next meal or how to buy a book they can’t afford. Immigranted is a registered 501c3 non-profit organization and all donations are tax-deductible. We are supported by a network of passionate volunteers ensuring all funding goes directly to those in need.