After Becoming The First Undocumented Student At Her School To Get Her Ph.D., She’s Concerned About DACA’s Future
As the first undocumented student to receive her Ph.D. from the University of California, Merced, Yuriana Aguilar is working hard to advance research on cardiovascular disease. But her success did not come easily. From struggling to pay for her undergrad tuition without DACA, to then having the amazing opportunity of completing her Ph.D. with the benefits of DACA, Yuriana Aguilar has been on both sides of this U.S. policy. But the question is, what’s going to happen next?
Here is Yuriana’s story and what she has to say to those whose lives also depend on DACA.
Yuriana Aguilar comes from a very humble background. Her parents only made it to second and sixth grade, but they never doubted her ability to excel in higher education.
“Sometimes I would get very frustrated, and they would say, ‘Tú eres muy inteligente, you can do it,'” Aguilar said. “And I would be like, okay, I don’t need that, but I think I did.”
Her parents made their children’s education a priority. “My parents figured out that education was the key,” Aguilar told mitú.
“With some families, if they have a truck or if they have a little house, even if their kids are barely making it out of high school, they think they’ve made it. And maybe they have, because in Mexico life is a lot harder,” Aguilar explained. “But somehow my parents knew that education was the key, and they were right.”
During her first four years in college, Aguilar was turned away from scholarships and other financial aid programs because DACA didn’t exist until 2012.
“One of the frustrations was trying to show the type of status I had,” she explained to mitú.
“When I was getting my Bachelors from 2007 to 2011, I could see a lot of people wanted to help me, they wanted me to have access to different opportunities and different scholarships, but [the organizations] would just tell me, ‘We can’t help you.'” Aguilar dealt with this for years. “It was very discouraging that they didn’t want to look at any of my qualifications.”
After getting her bachelor’s degree, she thought she had to end her education to give her siblings a chance to go to college.
“I just couldn’t continue with school because my parents would be even more burdened. So I said, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to get my Ph.D.”
“I was looking at the options and one of the options was being able to work for the university and the university would cover graduate school. But my [undocumented status] wasn’t going to work that way because I didn’t have a work permit, so I was going to have to pay for it. And I wasn’t going to be able to do that.”
But everything changed once DACA was implemented.
“Now with DACA, there are more students coming through the education pipeline. It’s a huge difference. The reason I could complete graduate school and get my Ph.D. was DACA.”
Post-graduate Aguilar continues to research cardiovascular disease in Chicago and experts say she could help save lives.
Christy Snyder, a member of the graduate division, explained: “The goal of Aguilar’s research is to better understand the molecular mechanisms that generate TWAs — knowledge that could eventually help to predict the likelihood of sudden cardiac death much earlier and allow those at high risk to get treatment.”
But now Aguilar’s concern is: what’s going to happen to DACA?
“My mom and dad both say que no me preocupe, to not worry. But a part of me is very concerned and very worried, because the president has spoken very openly about canceling DACA. So I’m very worried, but I mean, we just have to keep going… even if we’re not very sure.”
“When I was working on my bachelor’s and then my Ph.D., I wasn’t even sure if they were going to let me work as a scientist in the future,” Aguilar said. “But you just have to keep going.”
We asked Aguilar what advice she would give to those whose education, careers, and lives also depend on DACA, and she said she wants people to remain hopeful.
“I would just tell them what I tell myself every day: we’ll see what happens,” she told mitú.
“And whatever happens, we’ve been on the other side. On the other side when they didn’t help us, when there was no support, there were no work permits. So I think if we go back to that side, unfortunately it will be very sad because we’ve tasted what it’s like to be legal,” Aguilar said. “And I don’t know what would happen in terms of a job. Well, I do know what would happen. Everybody’s hands would be tied again.”
“People have told me that this country wants good immigration. So they think we’re going to get something better than DACA. We’ve taken a step back, and I just hope that DACA does not go back as well. Hopefully this president doesn’t keep his promises on that.”
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