After crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, 14-year-old Belen Mercado walked with her two brothers through the desert for two days and slept in the cold sand by night to reunite with her mother, whom they had not seen since she had migrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the United States a couple years prior.
Mercado soon enrolled in middle school and began leading the life of an undocumented immigrant teenager.
She is now an AB 540 student at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) who wants to major in English.
“It was nice to see my mother again. There were a lot of experiences that I had to go through, but I reunited with my mom after two years in Mexico without a father or mother to help and guide me,” said Mercado, recalling her childhood experience. “In middle school a lot of kids bullied and made fun of me because of my accent and the way I spoke. But this country has given me the opportunity to show to those kinds of people and to prove to myself that I can do anything.”
Mercado was one of 10 students, out of approximately 210 undocumented students who enroll at the university each year, who were recently invited to the Office of the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles to meet with Consul General Carlos M. Sada and his staff to share their struggles as undocumented students and residents, and the triumphs that have come with their perseverance.
The students are recipients of the IME-Becas/DREAMers scholarship, a dollar-for-dollar matching program and partnership between the consulate and CSUDH. An average of $3,500 to $4,000 is awarded to each undocumented student, primarily juniors and seniors, to significantly reduce their financial stress and allow them to focus on their academics. More than $90,000 have been awarded to CSUDH students since 2012.
To learn more about the IME-Becas/DREAMers scholarship click here to reach the Educational Opportunity Program or call (310) 243-3632.
“Each one of you is a great example of how to overcome obstacles in your life. When you are given opportunity you take it, and continue to have that vigor and even more ambitious goals,” said Sada. “…We know that it is very challenging to be in your position. You have had to travel a lot, and a lot of you came here without knowing a single word of English. To overcome such obstacles is not easy.”
The IME-Becas/DREAMers scholarship merges the national Institute for Mexicans Abroad (IME-Becas) scholarship–administered by Mexican consulate offices around the nation to provide funding for high-achieving Mexican and Mexican-American students–with the California DREAM Act, which in 2011 combined three state assembly bills, including California’s landmark legislation AB 540.
Students who receive the scholarship are not only exempt from paying the high cost of tuition for non-resident students in California’s public colleges and universities (AB 540), but may also apply for and be awarded private scholarships funded through public universities (AB 130), as well as state-administered financial aid, university grants, community college fee waivers and Cal Grants (AB 131).
Maria Villar, a CSUDH business major and South Gate resident who migrated from Peru to the U.S. when she was 6 years old, considered dropping out of CSUDH due to the high cost of tuition.
“This program has been a blessing. I wasn’t aware of any assistance when I first transferred to Cal State Dominguez Hills. I didn’t have any funds, but I did start to get involved by working with the EOP program and its AB 540 program, which is how I obtained this scholarship last spring,” said Villar. “The struggles I’ve had as an AB 540 student has mainly been tuition. I am not considered a resident. That’s been a constant obstacle in my life. As a business student, I try to apply for internships, but when they label you as AB 540 it doesn’t always work. You either have to be a U.S. citizen or resident, and it says that in bold on the letters you receive. But that hasn’t stopped me.”
Francisco Torres, a senior studying television arts at CSUDH, arrived in the U.S. in 1992 at the age of 4. Like many of CSUDH’s IME-Becas/DREAMers scholars, he finds a variety of unique and essential uses for the funding.
“I’m currently going through the process of getting my work permit as an undocumented student. I used half of my scholarship money to pay the lawyer, and the rest I’ve used for my parking pass at school, books and other things,” he said. “Transferring to Cal State Dominguez Hills as an undocumented student wasn’t as bad as when I first went to community college, because there wasn’t a lot of information for undocumented students there. Then, when I came to CSUDH, I was introduced to Brian Cruz [EOP academic adviser]. He has made everything a lot easier.”
Mercado is grateful for all the financial support and mentoring she has received at CSUDH, and looks forward to someday helping those who have experienced many of the challenges she has had as an undocumented resident in the U.S.
“Although my English is not exactly where I want it to be right now, being an English major is going to help me a lot to make my dreams happen–becoming an immigration attorney,” said Mercado. “I want to defend people who come to the United States illegally; those who think they don’t have any rights. I want them to know I identify with them and that there are opportunities out there.”