Delta College student Fernando Cardenas has overcome massive obstacles in his pursuit to achieving his dream of a higher education.
Born in Jocona, Michoacá, Mexico, Cardenas and his family moved to the United States in 2007 in hopes of paving the way to a brighter future for themselves.
Cardenas, who was only 9 years old at the time, had difficulty finding his place in a new country.
“Being an undocumented immigrant has been a struggle for me,” Cardenas said. “When I first came to the United States, there was a lot I didn’t know. I had to learn a new language, adapt to a different culture and do good in school.”
According to a 2020 report by New American Economy (NAE) and Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education, undocumented students make up an estimated two percent of all students enrolled in higher education in the U.S., which is approximately 450,000 students.
The report also found California has the highest number of undocumented students in postsecondary education, with a total of 92,000 students.
Undocumented students face a multitude of barriers compared to their peers who were born and raised in the U.S.
Cardenas said learning English was the biggest barrier he has faced as an immigrant. He often felt left out of conversations in the classroom and segregated from his peers.
While he couldn’t connect with classmates, Cardenas credits his fourth-grade teacher for helping him adjust to a new environment.
“I felt welcomed in her class because she had a passion for teaching,” Cardenas said. “She tried many ways to teach me how to speak English and I’m very grateful for that.”
Cardenas said his teacher provided him with audiobooks that allowed him to practice English. He also picked up on the language by watching television.
His challenges persisted.
When Cardenas was finally confident enough to speak English to his peers, he said he was bullied for the way he spoke.
“I still find myself struggling with some aspects of the language, such as writing essays,” Cardenas said.
At Delta, Cardenas said he has found support in his English as a Second Language (ESL) Professor Lilia Becerra-Quintor.
“She made me fall in love with reading and helped me to get rid of my shyness,” Cardenas said.
The educators Cardenas has encountered on his journey have inspired him to pursue a career in teaching, either for children with special needs or bilingual children.
“I want to have an impact on students’ lives because I want every child to succeed in life,” Cardenas said.
Another resource offered at Delta that has helped Cardenas is the I Am/Yo Soy club.
According to the club’s mission statement, the I Am/Yo Soy club aims to provide a safe space for all undocumented students, immigrants, and allies.
Brenda Sandoval, president of the I Am/Yo Soy club, believes the club “creates an easier path” for undocumented students and immigrants.
She joined the club during her first semester at Delta, a time in which she said she felt lost due to the transition between high school and college.
“I felt welcomed by club members and advisors, and felt as though I found my place on campus,” Sandoval said.
Taly Bautizta, club member, said she wanted to join the club because she was inspired by the way it advocates for students who are often left without a voice.
“The club spreads awareness and provides hope to undocumented students that they could still attend college and gain a higher education,” Bautizta said.
Bautizta said through I Am/Yo Soy, undocumented and immigrant students are able to build relationships with one another and take comfort in the fact there are others in the same situation or allies who are willing to help.
There are also resources the club provides students with, such as scholarships, workshops, and connections to immigration attorneys in San Joaquin County.
Meetings for the I Am/Yo Soy club are held every Friday at 2 p.m. on Zoom. The meeting ID is 772-878-1990.
Sandoval and Bautizta said they hope to be strong allies to undocumented and immigrant students on campus, allies that students like Cardenas could turn to.
Despite the hardships he has endured as an undocumented immigrant, Cardenas remains determined to create a better life for himself, just as his parents desired.
“I want to tell every undocumented student that they are not alone,” Cardenas said. “Dreams can come true if you work hard to accomplish them.”