The Hero’s Journey

Students Reflect on How They Made It to a Four-Year Degree

Undocumented graduates’ stories show the value of investing in critical supports and services for a very vulnerable population.

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People who study storytelling know that one of the universal themes found in the ancient stories of many cultures is the “hero’s journey.” During this journey, heroes grapple with fear, encounter guides who help them stay on path, and undergo personal transformation. What makes these heroes so inspiring is their ordinariness. They are not superheroes. They are every person.

In the short video that accompanies this blog post, Angelica Vargas, the keynote speaker, addresses undocumented graduates in U.C. Berkeley’s Class of 2018. She congratulates them for completing the hero’s journey. I found this deeply moving as I reflected on the Haas, Jr. Fund’s recent work to support undocumented college students. These students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, must navigate the uncertainty of today’s political climate and stay motivated to complete academically demanding courses. To succeed, they often require a mentor. They may encounter setbacks. But for many of them, college graduation represents not only the fulfillment of their quest, but recognition of their inner hero. That’s why the Haas, Jr. Fund has joined with other funders to create the California Campus Catalyst Fund.

We want to support colleges and universities across California to offer some of the same services that helped undocumented students make it to that commencement stage at Berkeley. We are excited that so many campuses are ready to step up and help more undocumented students and their families by providing a welcoming sense of community along with legal, mental health and other support.

Three Graduates’ Stories

Recently, three undocumented members of Berkeley’s Class of 2018—Alex, Nick and Jackie—spoke to me about the challenges they faced getting through college.

It was a long journey from Mexico to Berkeley for Alex. Like many other students at the university, he was strengthened in the last leg of his trek by Cal’s Undocumented Students Program. The program was created in 2016 to address the unique needs of undocumented students.

For Alex, one of the biggest challenges was finding mental health support. At age 16, he left his family in Mexico so he could go to school in the United States. “It was always hard not having my family with me, and Berkeley can be very challenging,” Alex said. On top of that, he didn’t qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program because of his age.

To get help dealing with the stress of school and the constant threat of deportation hanging over him, Alex visited with the Undocumented Student Program’s mental health staff. “That was super helpful to have someone to talk to who could offer coping strategies and other support,” he said.

Consider the story of another 2018 Berkeley graduate, Jackie. When she was accepted to the university, Jackie was excited about the opportunity to become the first person in her family to get a college education. But soon she realized she might not be able to afford it. “I didn’t know what a financial aid application was or what it meant for me as an undocumented student,” she said. In phone calls with the Undocumented Student Program, Jackie found support that helped her decide she could do it.

And then there’s the story of Nick, who first enrolled at Berkeley before DACA and the California Dream Act provided undocumented young people with critical lifelines to get an education and find deportation relief. Through the Undocumented Student Program, Nick found legal help and resources to support his education. Nick had to take a break from his studies for three years to earn the money he needed to cover tuition. But there he was on the commencement stage this spring, celebrating his achievement with his family.

In reflecting on what advice she would give to students following in her footsteps, Jackie said, “Once you surround yourself with people, mentors and advisors, it just feels safer.” It also helps ensure that our communities and our country don’t miss out on the incredible contributions these young people can bring—for all of us.