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From Undocumented in Santa Ana to the Ivy League - Dr. Gloria Montiel

I was born in Coacoyula de Alvarez, a rural pueblito in Guerrero, Mexico. Growing up, my streets didn’t have pavement. There were some cars, but people used donkeys and horses as transportation and farming and cattle raising were the primary methods of making a living. I never felt poor while growing up because everyone in Coacoyula had little means, but I also knew that in order to have food on the table and a roof over my head, my dad had to be in the United States while my mom and my sister had to remain in Mexico.

In 1995, my parents moved our family to Santa Ana, California, and I started my journey as an undocumented student. I always knew I was undocumented. It was a fact of life. I didn’t feel ashamed or that I wasn’t worthy of opportunity because of it. But, I also didn’t know the real impact of being undocumented. That year, I entered third grade—in classrooms with bilingual support—and learned English by the time I was done, as children often pick up language quite quickly. By fourth grade, I was moved into an all-English classroom. The day before the first day of school in 1997, my parents took me to check the school roster to see what classroom I’d be in for fifth grade, and I couldn’t find my name. I looked and looked and I was getting discouraged thinking that they forgot about me, when I notice a couple of other lists, where the “Gifted and Talented Education,” or GATE classrooms were listed. I checked there and found my name, and I exclaimed to my parents, “Mom and Dad, I’m in the White classroom!” At that age, I didn’t have language to describe “inequity,” but I knew that most of the children who looked like ME didn’t get to be part of the GATE program. I quickly learned that those in the GATE classroom had a lot better educational experiences than those who were not part of these classes. We had access to field trips and hands-on education, whereas in my previous classes, I was mostly doing worksheets. I also realized that I had to do everything I could to stay in the GATE program.

I can’t remember where I first learned about Harvard, but at 12 years old, it was my ultimate goal. I told everyone who would listen that I’d one day go to college there, but I don’t think I knew what a difficult goal that was. About 23,000 students applied each year, and less than 2,000 got in. The number of applicants is probably a lot more in the present. When I was in eighth grade, I learned about the A Better Chance (ABC) program that gives the opportunity to underrepresented students to attend a private high school. I wanted to go so badly, but my school counselor broke the news to me: that because I was undocumented, I was not eligible to apply.

My family supported me so much during this, especially as I was transitioning to high school. My parents would always say “echale ganas” and “nunca te rindas,” which kept me going no matter what. They would also say that they, themselves, would “hacerle la lucha” to make sure that I had an opportunity to go to college. It really took a village to support me as I learned at 14 years old. My tias and tios and even my cousins looked for ways to help me, asked lawyers if there was anything they could do, and always checked-in on me to see how I was doing in school. Even though there was no way for me to adjust my status, it was their support that kept me going.

During the summer before 9th grade, I took summer school. I was enrolled in Geometry, which was one level above the math class I should be taking as an incoming 9th grader. One of my friends asked me why I was enrolled in that class, and I responded that I wanted to go to Harvard, and she said, “Well, don’t you know? Mexican girls don’t go to Harvard.” That’s when it hit me and I truly became fully aware of what being undocumented meant. I wasn’t only undocumented. I was also low-income. My parents would never be able to afford sending me to college. I didn’t have too many role models at the time because not a lot of people in our community in Santa Ana went to 4-year colleges, let alone the prestigious ones. I was also a first-generation college aspirant. My friend wasn’t trying to be mean when she said this. But, it reflected our reality. We didn’t have a lot of resources in our community to show us what was possible, and that’s when I decided that I needed to be that change.

As soon as I entered the fall of 9th grade, I sought out my guidance counselor and introduced myself, “Hi I’m Gloria. I just entered 9th grade and I want to go to Harvard.” I made sure to check-in with him every week, that he knew who I was and that he could help me to build the best possible class schedule to make me a competitive applicant. My Junior and Senior year English teacher also helped me tremendously. He inspired me through literature and through his belief that even I—someone who was Mexican undocumented female student—could do ANYTHING I wanted. It’s because of him that I ended up studying English and American Literature in college, and it’s because of him that I went into the field of education for my advanced studies.

I received my admissions to Harvard on April 1st (yes, April Fools’ Day!) of 2005. As far as anyone knew, I was the first student from Santa Ana High School to ever be admitted. With the support of my family, teachers, counselor, and community, I had made my dream a reality, but that was only the beginning. My goal was not only to go to Harvard, but to one-day return to Santa Ana to be a role model for others, and to create change. I continued to have challenges because of my undocumented status. I wasn’t able to travel back home as often during breaks. I wasn’t able to have full-time employment while I was a student, so money was always tight. It also got to be very lonely at times. It’s not always easy to not be able to share with others this huge burden that I felt. My experience as an undocumented student in one of the world’s most prestigious universities was not easy. But, I always thought of my parents. They left their own parents and friends and a life that they—at least—knew to give me my best chance at life, and when the bitter Boston winter wind blew in my face, I liked to remind myself of how amazing it was that from a little ranchito in the middle of the sierra in Guerrero, I was now experiencing winter in one of the best universities of the world, and I remembered to be grateful. Grateful for my parents and family who had given me this opportunity, and grateful to my teachers and mentors and community for believing that I could seize the opportunity.

My journey since Harvard has been just as exciting and difficult at times. I became the first undocumented student to obtain a Master of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I became a DACA recipient in 2013, and in 2017, I became the first DACA recipient to obtain a PhD from the Claremont Graduate University. Each of these milestones came with its own challenges, but every step of the way, I have felt the support of my entire community. Today, I work as a Senior Grant Writer at AltaMed Health Services and also serve as program and strategy consultant with various other organizations in Southern California. I also teach graduate level courses at the Claremont Graduate University. Through my career, I have had the privilege of helping to bring more than $18 million for programs in education, health, financial stability, and community engagement, which brings me great pride and joy because our communities are often under-resourced and left out of traditional funding allocation plans.

To those who may be embarking on their own journey into higher education, just know that your background—your culture, your family, your experiences growing up—are what make you strong and they add so much value to your educational and professional experience. Seek mentors, seek role models, and never be afraid to dream the impossible. And, when you achieve you dreams, share the journey with others. Become a mentor. Become a role model, and together, let’s uplift our communities!

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