Many students in California face hardship and challenges, but for undocumented students those challenges exceed the norm.
Once they graduate from high school, the questions become how do they afford college; how do they keep their citizenship a secret? A secret they have kept for so long becomes an even bigger challenge in college.
Sergio, 21, an undocumented student at San Diego State University, has found a way to surmount his challenges. After graduating from San Diego High School with a 4.3 GPA, Sergio entered SDSU with a full privately funded scholarship.
Despite his citizenship status, Sergio managed to secure not one, but two internships inside the state capitol.
Sergio was brought to the United States by a coyote. He was smuggled across the border at the age of 13 with his younger sister using the documents of American-born children the same age.
At his request, we are not using Sergio's real name to protect his identity. We came across Sergio while doing a story on students whose lives would be impacted by the passage of California's DREAM Act.
Students like Sergio are protected under AB 540, which allows undocumented students who meet residency requirements to attend college in the United States without fear of persecution.
An outspoken student leader at SDSU, he is frequently asked to speak to undocumented students who feel they can’t go to college after high school.
"Sometimes I get a call from a teacher, ‘hey come talk to my students’," Sergio said.
After hearing his story other undocumented students and their families also turn to Sergio for help.
"I got a call from a Mom, late in the afternoon, and she said, 'Oh this is Sergio right?' and I'm like yeah. 'I have heard so much about you. I want you to mentor my kid. I don't care if I have to pay you. She wants to go to college, but she is not sure what to do,' Sergio recalled.
Sergio is able to lead others by example. His road hasn’t been an easy one.
For the most part, Sergio's education is covered through a private scholarship given to him by an organization founded by one of his high school teachers.
After state budget cuts and increased fees, Sergio's scholarship only pays for 60 percent of his education. He relies on the kindness of people who know his situation. One of his professors from his freshman year in college pays for his books every semester.
He survives on several small scholarships that he has been able to apply for, those that do not require U.S. citizenship.
"It disappoints me there are better scholarships I could apply for, but I can't, because I don't have a social security number," Sergio said.
Sergio’s outstanding academic record and extra-curricular activities help him to stand out. Now, he counsels students to begin building up their resumes the day they walk into high school.
“We have to make sure our persona is sellable for those private scholarships,” Sergio said. “I will tell them if you are undocumented, your job will begin in your freshman year, start getting involved. What is it that I can do to start building my resume? "
He encourages students to do things that will help them stand out and become recognized for being involved in their community. Much like American students are told to do when applying for college, except in this case these students are competing for both entry to college and scholarships. Without scholarships, many of these students cannot afford to attend a four-year university.
His passion is politics and it has led him to intern for two California state assembly members. Each fellowship paid him a $3000 stipend, which he used to support his education.
Sergio has learned that being an undocumented student can sometimes have its advantages.
"Because they will feel that I do need a little more help," Sergio said.
Sergio lives in City Heights with his mother and younger sister. Sergio's sister is entering her junior year in high school. Sergio has already begun counseling her on how to get into college.
"It breaks my heart to tell her you might not be able to make it, not because I don't think you are not qualified, but because of the money situation, because of your legal status," Sergio said. "I keep telling her, I have been able to help a lot of students that are in our situation, because she is also undocumented, to go to college and that it is possible and that you can do it."
Sergio plans to finish college before applying for U.S. citizenship and taking the risk of being deported if his application is denied.
"Once I graduate I'm not quite sure if I am going to be able to work," Sergio said. "I think I will go nuts if after I graduate I have nothing to do."