Gabriela Ledezma’s Turn at the American Dream

Gabriela Ledezma is waiting for her turn.

She challenged the odds by working two jobs, by transferring from community college to get to UC Berkeley, by simply leaving home.

Still, she is looking for the day when it’ll be her turn. Her turn to attend law school. Her turn to join the Army and hopefully become a JAG attorney. Her turn at the American Dream.

Because despite her relentless drive, there’s one obstacle that clouds her dreams; she’s undocumented and for the last 20 years she’s been trying to clear this hurdle.

“When I graduated from high school I realized my true limitations,” Gabriela said. “Once I enrolled into community college and they charged me $12,000 things became real – but I welcomed the challenge.”

Courtesy of Gabriela Ledezma

Gabriela, who is now 23 and moved from her native Mexico to California when she was three, is double-majoring in psychology and legal studies at UC Berkeley. She entered Cal as a psychology major hoping to become a psychologist, but admits she fell in love with the law and will apply to law school once she graduates in 2016.

Before her acceptance to UC Berkeley, – one of the highest ranked universities in the nation, Gabriela was enrolled at Rio Hondo community college in Whittier, Calif., during a time when her family was struggling financially. They moved several times throughout different suburbs in Los Angeles and Gabriela’s three-bus commute often caused her to miss class. Eventually she had to drop out one semester. And she thought it was the end of her academic road.

“At that point I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. You’re done with school, you’re going to have to work for the rest of your life.’ I also thought, ‘even if I go back to school, a good university is not going to want me.'”

After taking a semester off, Gabriela returned to Rio Hondo to finish general education in 2013. She thought major universities wouldn’t accept her because of her legal status, but credits her college counselor for encouraging her to apply to public universities, including UC Berkeley where she was accepted.

Upon receiving her letter of acceptance, Gabriela was once again faced with another set of curveballs. The first was trying to afford her big move to San Francisco by taking on two fulltime jobs.

“I would wake up at 4 a.m. to be at Starbucks by 4:30 a.m. and work until 1 p.m. After my shift I would head home and nap for a few hours then head to the [Los Angeles] Times and work from 6 p.m. to midnight.” She says it was tough, but it’s what she needed to do.

Gabriela was relieved when she was granted a Haas Dreamer Scholarship, the Berkeley Scholarship, and a couple undergraduate grants, but this took her to realize she’d have to challenge another obstacle: her parents.

Courtesy of Gabriela Ledezma

Coming from a family with traditional values, her parents were the least thrilled about the possibility of her moving away for college. Because of her family’s Christian morals, Gabriela’s parents expected her to live at home and move out only after marrying as both her older sisters did. When the news of her scholarship broke, she admits her parents thought she was lying only to leave home. Then the anger set in.

“(My dad) would always say, ‘The only way you’re leaving this house is with a husband … .’ When I finally told him I’m really leaving to San Francisco, he said, ‘You want to leave then you’ll have to figure it out on your own.’ He was very upset. He thought I just wanted to leave them. It was hell,” she said.

Her parents continued pressuring her to reconsider her decision for something closer like Cal State LA or UCLA. It wasn’t until her parents drove Gabriela to visit the Berkeley campus around Thanksgiving that they understood the opportunity she had at hand and changed their minds.

Courtesy of Gabriela Ledezma

Gabriela conquered her financial setbacks and finally convinced her parents her move wasn’t to get away from them but to continue her education, but she had yet to battle with possibly the strongest limitation: her undocumented status.

As Gabriela experienced in community college, enrolling in school as an undocumented student meant once again not being eligible for all scholarships and potentially paying full tuition price. But since she defeated her financial setbacks once, this wasn’t going to hold her back again. Now her biggest barrier is the uneasiness of not knowing if her status will limit her career goals.

“My oldest sister wanted to enroll in the U.S. Army, but wasn’t allowed to because of her immigration status. It crushed her,” Gabriela said.

Seeing firsthand how her sister had to change her career goals isn’t causing Gabriela to reconsider her path. She’s committed to making sure her efforts are fruitful.

“I have a dream. I want to join the Army Reserve while I attend law school,” she said.

Courtesy of Gabriela Ledezma

Gabriela dreams with doing something meaningful with her career. She wants to become a JAG lawyer. But despite her drive to succeed academically and professionally, Gabriela’s afraid she won’t be accepted into law school and all her hard work will be discredited because of her immigration status. And she’ll have to wait yet again.

Gabriela and her family petitioned for residency in 1995 and are working with the Berkeley legal clinic to receive help. If their petition isn’t accepted, they will try to file through her oldest sister’s whose citizenship is currently being processed.

“I’ve been in the United States for the past 20 years of my life. I’m 23. At this point, I’m just waiting for Homeland Security to finally say, ‘It’s your turn.'”

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