Born in Apatzingán, Michoacán, México, Dr. Yuriana Aguilar was only 5-years-old when she came to the United States.
And 21 years later, Aguilar made history in the Central Valley by being the first undocumented immigrant student to earn a doctorate degree from the University of California, Merced.
The 26-year-old is obtaining her Ph.D. degree in Cardiac Electrophysiology, which she describes as the study of electricity and the heart. Her research as graduate student focused on the human heart.
Aguilar took part of UC Merced graduation ceremonies in May and this summer she is working on finishing her doctoral thesis.
Earning her doctorate degree from the Quantitative Systems Biology Program shows Aguilar’s determination and willpower to overcome obstacles in pursuing her dream.
However, the road to earning her Ph.D. has not been an easy one for Aguilar, whose immigration status now falls under the DACA category of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
It was not until Aguilar was in high school and looking at colleges and filling out financial aid forms when she realized that her legal situation was very different from other students at Fresno High School.
“I didn’t have a social security number,” Aguilar said.
For Aguilar reality hit with the realization that she was an undocumented immigrant and that her dreams of pursuing a higher education would face many barriers.
But Aguilar’s legal situation in this country didn’t stop her from looking for ways to go to college.
Aguilar, who graduated from Fresno High School in 2007 as a valedictorian, did a lot of community services and looked for as many merit scholarships that didn’t required legal status.
Aguilar hard work paid off as she was able to secure approximately $25,000 in scholarships which allowed her to be the first one in her family to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree.
“My parents valued education. They knew the key to the American dream was education,” said Aguilar, adding that her mother, Ana, 46, only completed second grade in her native Michoacán while her father, Arturo, 47, completed sixth grade.
“It is not Okay to have an educational system that invests into every student until they graduate from high school, but when it comes to supporting all students seeking higher education, walls start to pop up,” Aguilar said.
However, her hard work in getting scholarships didn’t come without sacrifices.
Aguilar gave up her dream of going to Mills College in the Bay Area, an independent liberal arts college for women.
Instead Aguilar enrolled at UC Merced, not only to stay closer to home but because the cost of attending UC Merced as an undergraduate student was lower, especially since she couldn’t obtain financial aid to pay for her first four years of college due to her immigration status.
As an undocumented immigrant, Aguilar didn’t have a work permit and was not eligible for either state or federal financial aid or loans when she started her undergraduate degree in 2007 at UC Merced.
Besides the scholarships she obtained to help pay for her undergraduate degree, Aguilar worked at flea markets and other places that didn’t required citizenship, legal residency or work permit to cover other college expenses. Her parents, who own a four-acre farm in Fresno, also supported Aguilar financially whenever they could help out.
Aguilar graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biological science with a focus on human biology from UC Merced in 2011. Her goal back then was to become a doctor. However she faced a dead end after graduation, and she decided to volunteer in a research lab at UC Merced.
The Dream Act and DACA did not come into effect until after Aguilar graduated with her bachelor’s degree.
When DACA came into effect on June of 2012, Aguilar applied for it and was able to obtain a work authorization permit and get a driver’s license. However, Deferred Action did not provide Aguilar with a lawful status in this country which limited opportunities for her.
As a DACA student, Aguilar, who was now enrolled in a Ph.D. program at UC Merced, was able to begin a work study program on campus to help her pay for her doctorate degree in the Quantitative Systems Biology program.
During her doctorate program Aguilar was selected as a Fletcher Jones fellow, Rose R Ruiz scholar and Miguel Velez scholar, prestigious awards that provided financial assistance to complete her degree.
Aguilar worked with Professor Ariel Escobar doing research on sudden cardiac death, which is the leading cause of natural deaths in the United States.
Aguilar said she studies the T-wave alternans, which are the predictors for sudden cardiac death, a condition in which the heart’s electrical system malfunctions and those T-waves tell what is happening with the heart.
According to the university, Aguilar’s research goal is to better understand the molecular mechanisms that generates T-waves alternans, and eventually help predict the likelihood of sudden cardiac death much earlier to allow those at high risk get treatment.
Aguilar said she will be traveling this month to Chicago for a possible research opportunity at Rush University.
Aguilar is an inspiration to her own siblings and other students.
Aguilar’s oldest sister Mayra went back to school and currently is attending American River College in Sacramento. Her brother, Gonzalo is attending Fresno City College and her brother Arturo recently graduated as a pilot from a school in North Dakota. Her younger sister Carina is enrolled at California State University, Monterey and wants to become a doctor.
A couple of weeks ago, Aguilar went back to her high school Alma matter to speak to students and share her story of success to inspire other students that might be in a similar situation.
A new country
Like many immigrants families, Aguilar’s parents and came to the United States to provide better opportunity to their children so they could have a better life.
Aguilar’s sister, Mayra, is two years older than her. She also has two brothers, Arturo, 20 and Gonzalo, 21 and a little sister, Carina, 19, who was born in the United States.
“Four of us were born in México,” said Aguilar, who is the second of five children. “Carina was born here.”
Aguilar’s family is what many consider a mixed status family. Just in California, three out of four children born here have an immigrant parent and approximately 2.4 million undocumented people live in the state.
When Aguilar arrived to California, she started Kindergarten and started learning English as a second language.
“I was terrified of school,” said Aguilar of starting school in a new country with a difference language.
Aguilar said her parents had friends who talked about how schools in the United States were nicer.
“He (her dad) felt this was a better place and my little bother getting sick pushed (the move to the Unite State),” Aguilar said.
“We have been here for 21 years and this is all we know,” Aguilar said of living most of her life in the United States. “I don’t know what México is like. I would like to visit. We haven’t gone back.”
Bringing awareness to the need of immigration reform
Early this month, Aguilar participated in a panel discussion about the complexity of comprehensive immigration reform as well as the role and presence of undocumented people in California like herself.
Aguilar shared her personal story of being undocumented and now being a DREAMer and the numerous obstacles she had to overcome to reach her goal of obtaining a higher education.
Aguilar said she was asked to participate in the panel after her name was all over the news as the first undocumented student obtaining a Ph.D. degree in the Valley.
Aguilar didn’t mind taking part of the panel if it would help bring awareness to the roadblocks many undocumented students face after they obtain a college degree.
Growing up at home, Aguilar said she didn’t feel any different from her baby sister who was a U.S citizen.
But Aguilar’s reality was not the same as her younger sister Carina, who could go to college and work in her profession once she graduates from college without worrying about her legal status in this country.
Aguilar said many undocumented college students like herself, face a dead end after graduation.
Even though Aguilar has a work permit thanks to DACA, “there is not pathway to citizenship,” Aguilar said.
She said that people don’t know that even though she has a Ph.D. doors are not completely open for her.
“There are many barriers preventing undocumented students from reaching their full potential because of lack of a pathway to citizenship and its benefits,” Aguilar said.
As undocumented immigrant who has DACA, Aguilar said, there is no path to obtaining her legal residency or citizenship. DACA has to be renewed every two years.
Aguilar first obtained DACA in 2012, renewed her application in 2014 and just finished her 2016 renewal.
“I do fear DACA being gone. I fear it could get denied for whatever reason,” Aguilar said of the uncertainty of the program and her fear of deportation, especially now that she has a one-year-old daughter to take care of.
Her husband, who is also an undocumented immigrant, doesn’t qualify to apply for DACA, Aguilar said.
And applying and renewing DACA can get costly for undocumented immigrants with limited resources.
Aguilar said she has spent $465 every time she has applied for DACA.
Aguilar is aware of some criticism that DACA students at universities are taking the place of U.S citizens. However, Aguilar disagrees with that statement.
“This country has a shortage of professionals, and we want to give back to this country by filling those professional positions,” Aguilar said.