By Jessica Hyejin Lee
“Why aren’t you sure about studying abroad in Cape Town?”
“I just haven’t figured out the finances.”
I lied to my friend again about why I can’t study abroad in Cape Town, though it has been my dream to study the politics and disparities of South African society.
So here is the real explanation: I’m undocumented. Although I appear to fit in a group of Mawrters and Fords in a Dalton classroom, at Lunt basement concerts, and at Crew team practices, I can be deported anytime from America, my home country, because I do not have legal status here. I do not have the 9-digit Social Security number that would allow me to get a driver’s license, federal financial aid, or a job after graduation. When travelling, I can be pulled out at the security gates at any moment and be put into deportation proceedings. If I am ever victimized by a crime, I will find it safer to not call the police. Though America is the only home I know in my heart, this is my reality every day.
I am writing to tell my story as an undocumented student at Bryn Mawr to begin a genuine, powerful conversation that acknowledges and acts to challenge all social injustice faced by beloved Mawrters and Fords. Bryn Mawr and Haverford’s commitment to social justice in the world and on campus is commendable. They both try to place students on the same playing field— we all eat in the same dining halls, live in the same dorms, and study in the same classes. This is noble but we should be remindful that it hides different barriers like class, race, gender, and citizenship status. It also hides the barriers in between the real world and the Bi-Co maintained by the policies of our elite colleges.
I have been silent for the past two and a half years of my college career. Despite the risk of deportation, I expose my status today and speak out for myself, for the broken dreams of undocumented youths in America, and for other marginalized groups. My story invites the Bryn Mawr community to see all of me and to continue to see me as I define myself, not as my status tries to define me.
Daydreams of college life distract many high school seniors from studies; but for others doubts and fears are more common than dreams–dreams are forbidden, especially if they are the American dream. Most undocumented students cannot pursue higher education because we are prohibited from federal financial aid. At most colleges, we are not given need-blind admissions, meaning our finances play an important role in determining admissions. We don’t qualify for many forms of private financial aid or loans. At most, the few of us who have made it to community colleges must work full-time under the table in order to pay the international tuition for 1-2 classes per semester, which is still hard to afford. With this in mind, I applied to 24 first tier colleges with large endowments, in hopes that at one of these schools I would be given a full-ride even with my undocumented status.
Despite this, I was waitlisted and rejected from many colleges, as most did not consider me for need-blind admissions. Colleges that accepted me did not offer any financial aid. Not having the 9-digit Social Security number limited possibilities in my life more than I thought it would when I naively arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 12.
By April of my senior year in high school, I couldn’t bear to hear my International Baccalaureate classmates talk about college academics and dorm life, which seemed further and further removed from my future. Have you decided where you are going? My classmates assumed I would be attending one of the best colleges.
They thought they knew me. Or maybe they did—we had studied, practiced, tested, volunteered, and socialized together for years—for some, my undocumented status is all they see and to others it is all they do not. Even with 10 IB/AP courses and multiple leadership experiences on my record, I had to walk across the stage on graduation day without knowing if I would be attending college in the Fall or if I could ever afford college. I dealt with depression as May turned into June and June turned into July.
Miraculously and thankfully, I was notified of a full-ride offer from Bryn Mawr in July after appealing for reconsideration with some newly received private scholarships. Since then, there has been nothing more empowering than Bryn Mawr in my life; it allowed me to freely define, change, and become who I want to be through countless classes on diverse subjects, internship opportunities in Philadelphia, and an amazing network of peers, faculty members, and alumni.
I am currently a junior on track to major in Physics and Political Science and to minor in Philosophy, aspiring to become a leader in public policy to fight poverty and homelessness. I am studying homelessness in America with the Social Work Graduate School Professor Jim Baumohl and have recently founded ReMap, a group of Tri-Co student social-entrepreneurs that aspires to tackle social issues by utilizing sustainable business plans. Even though I am undocumented, Bryn Mawr provides top educational opportunities for me to become a leader.
However, challenges still remain with my status. I was deemed ineligible for summer science research for the Physics department my freshman year. My application for Hepburn Center Summer of Service was thrown out before being reviewed. Despite being approved by the college to study abroad in Cape Town, I cannot go, as undocumented individuals cannot travel outside the country. Although I was offered to be a coordinator for the college leadership program LEAP, I did not have the work permit to accept this opportunity. Most importantly, even after my wonderful education at Bryn Mawr, I will not be able to work legally in the United States after graduation.
The federal DREAM Act failed to pass twice during my time at Bryn Mawr. The Congress has failed to pass it for more than a decade now. With the enactment of anti-immigration bills like HB56 in Alabama, I can no longer afford to be silenced by the fear of deportation, or the words of Senators and Representatives who say, I am not allowed to be “American.”
I work with the organizations DreamActivist and VamosTogether (also a Bi-Co student group) to organize for immigrant justice in Pennsylvania and Alabama. Last week we organized a memorial service presentation in the Campus Center to commemorate the broken dreams of the undocumented–I refuse to sit in the shadows while undocumented Americans in Alabama are denied running water and their dreams of higher education every day.
Despite my studies at Bryn Mawr and activism in Philadelphia, a close friend of mine recently called me out for having not truly utilized my privilege as a student at Bryn Mawr to bring changes within the campus for other undocumented students like myself. I hadn’t created momentum within the student body to fight for all the other undocumented individuals who still are not able to pursue education like we, Mawrters and Fords, are. While I am thankful to the Bi-Co for the opportunities it offers me, I am not content with these opportunities not being better shared with others like myself.
Therefore I now want to invite our community into a conversation that examines the admissions and financial aid policies in the Bi-Co. Bryn Mawr is not need-blind for all students, and Haverford provides funding for only 12 international students with need out of 1200 students. The impact of Bryn Mawr and Haverford’s lack of fully need-blind admissions policies for undocumented applicants is not completely known.
After all the obstacles my status has brought me, I still have faith in the American Dream. As an empowered Bryn Mawr woman and an unrecognized American, I will righteously claim my civil rights, reject the existing power discourse, and fight for the marginalized and the voiceless. I am undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic. I encourage our Mawrter and Ford community to join this quest for justice on our campuses, in our communities, and in our nation.
Please join me at the community-wide discussion on immigration and social justice on Thursday, Nov. 17th at 3-4pm in Thomas Great Hall.
Questions? Comments? Hlee02@brynmawr.edu
by Jessica Hyejin Lee