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The Education Trap 

In California, many undocumented immigrants are offered cheap college tuition, only to find they can’t get jobs after they graduate.

Wednesday, Jul 21 2010
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Page 4 of 5

Eva drives out to the beach at Pacifica, where she often meditates between shifts at the burger joint and a chain restaurant while taking in the surfers and the seagulls. She settles down on a concrete wall, and her smile disappears. "When you graduate, it's like a slap in the face," she says.

Eva had hoped to go to law school, yet she bombed her LSATs — still struggling with timed tests in English — and has had problems finding the motivation to try again when she can't afford law school. She dreams of working on policy for the United Nations, a job that would allow her to travel. A small porcelain globe hangs around her neck, a gift from an American friend who graduated with the same major and is already working as an aide in the Salinas district attorney's office.

"She's doing all the things I should be doing," Eva says. Her eyes tear up behind her rhinestone-emblazoned retro glasses. "It just makes me wonder, maybe if I had papers I could do that kind of stuff."

When Eva was 13, her mom paid a coyote $3,000 in house-cleaning and waitressing cash to lead the girl through the Arizona desert. Back in the Mexican coastal state of Nayarit, Eva had been a top student with wicked volleyball defense. But showing up to San Jose High Academy for her freshman year without speaking English, "I came to be the wetback." The U.S.-born Latinos mocked her attempts at English, so she befriended the chola girls in her ESL classes with thick eyeliner and blue sureño shoelaces weaving through their Nike sneakers. She was soon one of them: In her senior year, she pinned down a girl in the school parking lot and pulled her hair, and got suspended for a week.

But once her counselor moved her from ESL to mainstream classes, Eva thrived. She raised her GPA to a 2.0 in order to join the basketball team. When she found out she didn't have to pay international student tuition at De Anza Community College, she enrolled, but having earned Cs in nearly every class through high school, she knew it would be a struggle. For four years, she drilled her English in language and writing classes and worked through math, statistics, and French. Finally, at age 22, she transferred to S.F. State. Stepping onto campus, she felt like she'd won a second lease on life. She graduated with a 3.4 GPA, an unlikely success.

On a recent Thursday, Eva sat at a pod of desks in a classroom at James Lick High School in San Jose, invited to demystify college for ninth-graders in a summer program for minority kids who would be the first in their families to pursue higher education.

"I am one of the few who was able to graduate when I didn't have papers," she says, drawing some smiles from the Latino students. "We crossed the desert just like that," she says, sliding her hand across the desk. "Just like that."

The students have questions, and soon comes the zinger she'd been dreading. "How did college prepare you for your career?"

"Well," she laughs quickly, "I don't have a career yet." As the groups rotate, her answer becomes more vague. "Yeah, it gives a lot of knowledge and the ability to interact with other people. It does prepare you." The kids eagerly write down her answers. She never tells them what she does now.

On the days when customers are nice, tips are good, and the Serenity Prayer ("God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change ...") tucked behind her order pad keeps her centered, life is passable. But then there are the other days. "I just have these days when people are, like, on a mission to make your life miserable," she says. "That's when it's like, 'I went to school, I spent so many sleepless nights so I wouldn't have to be here.' That's when it gets hard."

Eva is mulling giving the DREAM Act one more year, and then applying to law schools in Canada or the U.K. If all else fails, she may head back to Mexico and hunt for a job in hotels or in export. If she leaves, she'll lose her eligibility for the DREAM Act, since she must be here five years continuously before it passes. So for now, she's buying time. "I'm not ready to give up the dream yet," she says.

College has changed Eva, if not her career. When one student asked what she'd be doing if she hadn't gone, she says she'd probably be married with kids, living paycheck to paycheck and watching Spanish-language soap operas all day. Instead, she slips into Peet's in her free time, poring over the Christian Science Monitor or autobiographies of world leaders to keep her sharp. When a customer at the diner suggests she hang out at the country club to nab a rich man to marry, she just laughs. "I'm only 25; I don't need to worry about getting married," she says.

College has also changed her family. Eva's younger brother graduates from high school next year, and wants to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. Whether the DREAM Act passes or not, Eva plans to help pay his tuition and hook him up with a job at the same restaurant.


On a sunny Saturday earlier this month, Prerna Lal was one of many DREAM Act–eligible students descending on Dolores Park for an international potluck picnic: wontons, Korean pork buns, pastel de tres leches, Inka Kola, pupusas. Most of the attendees were in the country illegally. The parents of the scholarship winner in sequined flip-flops chatting about starting at S.F. State this fall have been fighting a deportation order for a decade. A woman in a UC Berkeley T-shirt turns out to be the student who coordinated the Civic Center hunger strike in 2007. Three years after graduating with an architecture degree, her idealism seems worn as she explains she's working as a secretary and photographing proms.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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