Iveth Estrada didn’t know she was an undocumented immigrant until shortly before she enrolled at Cuyamaca College. She didn’t know while growing up with her family in Spring Valley. She didn’t know while competing with the varsity swim and water polo teams at Monte Vista High School.
“I only found out when I was talking to my mom about getting a job and she told me, ‘Well, you need a Social Security card for that and you were born in Mexico,’” said Estrada, who would learn she was brought across the border from Acapulco shortly after celebrating her first birthday.
Today, despite growing anti-immigrant fervor, Estrada has found a home at Cuyamaca College. She is thriving academically, she has spearheaded the formation of a new United Dreamers club, and she is laying the groundwork to secure a master’s degree and launch a career as a clinical psychologist.
In many ways, she is the face of the undocumented college student in California.
“Inspiring, tenacious, and resilient are just some of the many adjectives I would use to describe Iveth Estrada,” said Mary Garcia, a Cuyamaca College counselor. “She is a natural leader and an asset to her community on and off campus. As an undocumented student, she has had not only academic but also personal barriers, yet she manages to overcome them semester by semester. I truly don’t know how she does it, given the political climate in our country.”
Estrada is among the estimated 741,000 students nationwide who have benefitted from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy enacted by the Obama administration that allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable, two-year period free from deportation and be eligible to work. But Estrada’s amnesty under DACA expires in March 2018, and she is uncertain of her future with a new presidential administration pledging to crack down on illegal immigration.
“Right now, I basically have permission to go to school and work here until next year, but after that, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Estrada said. “Are they going to pull me out of school? Take my education away? Are they going to put me in a country that I’ve never really lived in before? I don’t know anything about Mexico. What about my little sisters? They were born here, so I guess they would stay. But if my mom and I are deported, does that mean they would be orphans? It’s unsettling. It’s crazy.”
Despite the distractions, Estrada is excelling in the classroom and as a student engagement ambassador helping the Office of Student Affairs coordinate various cultural events.
“Cuyamaca College is fortunate to have students such as Iveth who are passionate about their beliefs and determined to get a good college education,” said Lauren Vaknin, Associate Dean of Student Affairs, who serves as Estrada’s supervisor.
An average student at Monte Vista High School, Estrada almost didn’t make it to Cuyamaca College. “I wasn’t even aware of what college was,” she said. “I just thought you had to graduate from high school and that was it.”
When representatives from Cuyamaca’s former First Year Experience program – now called the Pathway Academy - visited Monte Vista, Estrada learned otherwise. “They told me all about the college, how to apply, how to take the assessments,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared to go to a university. I never took an SAT test; I didn’t even know what it was. Cuyamaca was affordable, it was accessible, so it made perfect sense.”
Estrada said tt was the best decision she’s made in her 19 years. “I’m thankful to be here,” she said. “Academically, it’s amazing. I have a job to help support myself, and I’m working with counselors who are incredible.”
Estrada’s goal is to transfer to a University of California campus after earning her associate degree at Cuyamaca College, then secure a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in psychology before becoming a clinical psychologist.
She is on track to graduate from Cuyamaca in spring 2018. Until then, she’ll be plenty busy as president of the nascent United Dreamers.
“It’s primarily a way to provide a safe space for undocumented students,” Estrada said. “We give them a place to talk, a place to support each other and maybe put on some events.”
“It’s sad, but a lot of undocumented students are looked at as criminals,” Estrada continued. “But nothing could be further from the truth. I came here as a baby and I had no idea I wasn’t an American citizen until recently. We’re people like anybody else who are looking for a good education and an opportunity to succeed.”