Courtesy: Javier Hernandez
Sonoma State’s Dream Center supports undocumented students by providing legal assistance and support finding work.

Although everyone has been a dreamer, some people take that title more literally than others — specifically the nearly 700,000 people who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in the United States, who are also known as “Dreamers.” I am among those who have been lucky enough to reap the benefits of DACA, which includes the opportunity for undocumented individuals to gain temporary legal status and work authorization for up to two years, subject to renewal.

DACA was first introduced in 2012 by President Barack Obama as an opportunity for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children. A benefit that DACA has given me and hundreds of thousands of others is the chance to go to college — I’m in my final year at Sonoma State University. Navigating through college for anyone is difficult, but navigating as a Dreamer is a whole different ballgame. There can be financial, resource and legal status problems when a Dreamer attends college. An additional challenge is often being the first in your family to go to college, which brings more uncertainty when the people you would typically look to for clarity are just as unsure about the situation as you.

Dreamers tend to typically have to dig deeper and work even harder than documented students to find support and resources that are accessible to them, as they have to make sure they fit the qualifications before applying. Navigating college complexities is easier if you know your resources — what is available to you, and what is only available to U.S. citizens.

For example, I tried to join CalFresh, the program that gives low-income college students extra money to buy groceries and food, but I wasn’t able to because of my immigration status.

Genesis Orozco, a fellow Dreamer and psychology major at Sonoma State, explained some of her difficulties. “A problem I feel like most Dreamers can probably relate to is majoring in something that you’re going to be able to find a job in and use your degree. … There are jobs out there that require you to be a U.S. citizen. I wanted to attend the police academy so I spoke to a counselor, and as soon as I heard the requirements I knew there was no way for me to apply. It was my dream job but I, unfortunately, had to rethink what I wanted as a career.

“Non-Dreamers don’t have to think about what they can and cannot be,” Orozco added.

American multicultural studies major Michael Borquez said his experience as a Dreamer made him aware of the sacrifices his parents have made and believes he is a “byproduct of their sacrifices.” He also said that coming from a “class that has been marginalized and silenced, (he is empowered) to be responsible and accountable to further perpetuate equity.”

A place on college campuses where undocumented students can typically ask for help is their institution’s version of a Dream Center. Alma Sanchez-Carreno, Sonoma State’s Dream Center coordinator, explained how the center supports undocumented students in a variety of ways, including “resources like work opportunities for students even if they don’t have a valid work permit.”

The Dream Center also offers free legal services to students, families of students and faculty through the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA. These free legal services include paid DACA renewals and screenings to see if Dreamers are eligible for travel approvals known as advance parole. Additionally, the Center provides training to staff and faculty, giving them knowledge on the lives of undocumented students, the challenges they face and how to support them.

“The greatest challenge I have faced as a Dreamer pursuing higher education is that many faculty, staff and students are unaware of the presence of student Dreamers on campus, including our different obstacles in higher education,” said Shirley Leilani Garcia, a fourth-year criminology and criminal justice studies major. “Specifically, when I first came to Sonoma State, I encountered many opportunities and was encouraged to apply, yet they failed to mention or specify in their requirements certain eligibility, such as a Social Security number.”

Garcia said that these challenges have helped her become “vocal about the need for transparency in the presence of undocumented students … by encouraging students, faculty, and staff to go to our campus Dream Center and gain some insight.”

What advice would Orozco and Garcia give to students about to start their first year of college?

“Take advantage of the resources that are available for us as Dreamers,” Orozco said. “That means if there’s a scholarship available, make sure to apply. It doesn’t hurt to try. That scholarship can help pay for a book or two, it can help pay tuition.”

She added, “Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help because there are many Dreamers that share the same stories, background and struggles as you.”

Garcia agreed.“The best advice I can give a Dreamer that is about to start their first year of college is to not be afraid to ask the questions, even if it can put the college in an uncomfortable situation. Many college campuses promote their campuses as being inclusive for all but sometimes fail to include Dreamers in that promotion, therefore it’s important we question it.”

As this piece is being written, I am less than three weeks away from graduating from college. It has been a very difficult but rewarding four years filled with memories that I will never forget. As a Dreamer and first-generation college student, this is a moment that I have worked very hard to achieve. My advice for future Dreamers is to never shy away from the challenges even when it seems like the adversity is never-ending.

Sí se puede.


Javier Hernandez is a fourth-year communications and media studies major at Sonoma State University and is a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps. He is a recipient of the Obama Administraton’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us

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  1. Manuel Beltran 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Great story great new perspective I never thought about!

  2. Alexis Hernandez 1 month ago1 month ago

    Amazing article! Thank you for shining light on a topic so close to our heart that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

  3. Ryan 1 month ago1 month ago

    Very informative article, I tip my hat to the author!