American Education, Hard Work Helped Former Undocumented Student Chart His Future (York Alum)

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist Robert W. Fernandez

Nearly eight years ago, I was a hard-working high school senior living in Elizabeth.

At the time, my dream was to go to college and eventually start a business. Only one thing kept me from pursuing an education that could launch me into a successful and fulfilling career: I was an undocumented immigrant, which meant that my options for moving forward were much more limited than my peers’ options.

I didn’t find out I was an “illegal alien” until I started filling out college applications. That’s when I learned that I had no social security number. When I was four years old, my family had moved to the U.S. from Peru. Once here, although I didn’t know this until my senior year, a lawyer stole my family’s savings, quashing our plans to apply for residency, and leaving us undocumented.

Thanks to America’s public school system, I had received a quality high school education. But as I watched my friends move on to great universities to pursue their dreams, my life stood still. Being undocumented felt like living in a cage. Worst of all, I felt like I was going to let down my mother, who was working 60 hours a week in a factory to support my brother and me.

I decided not to let my immigration status define me. I enrolled in Union County College — one of the New Jersey schools that was accepting undocumented immigrants at the time — and earned an associate’s degree in business with honors. During my last semester there, I took a science class that opened my eyes to a career in biotechnology. I wanted to continue my education at a four-year school, but most schools couldn’t accept me because of my status. The schools that could accept me were astronomically expensive, and unfortunately, I was ineligible for financial aid. As I ran out of choices, a friend of mine who was in a similar immigration situation told me about the City University of New York (CUNY) system, which accepts undocumented students.

With money I earned at a deli job, and with the financial support of my mother, I was finally able to study biotechnology at York College, a CUNY school in Queens. One of my professors, Dr. Anne F. Simon, took an interest in me and asked if I had thought about conducting research. Soon enough, I was studying how chemicals like dopamine affect social interactions in model organisms. Several mentors from the biology and physics departments were supportive and helped me excel throughout my time as an undergraduate. I conducted summer research at Princeton University, presented at research conferences, won an academic scholarship from the Alliance Scholars fund (which supports Hispanic scientists), and even received admission to doctoral programs in my field.

After college, I received both my permanent residency card and the support of The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, which together have enabled me to pursue a doctorate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. I will earn the skills necessary to become a better scientist and pursue my new dream of starting a biotech company to study neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

I was lucky. I was able to find schools that accepted undocumented immigrants, I had a supportive family, a quality high school education, and a network of supportive professors and mentors who helped me wriggle through the system against the odds. But not all immigrants will enjoy such an ideal situation.
With the opportunities I worked so hard to earn, I want to give back. I want Americans to know about immigrants like me whom President Obama is helping through his executive order on immigration. There is a long road ahead for those impacted by the new law, and for all undocumented people in this country. But Americans should know that this group of immigrants is not defined by a piece of paper. We are individuals who are grateful to be here and relieved to be able to help you make this country a stronger, better, healthier place for us all.