Norma Mendoza, 27 is the Program Coordinator at the Serna Center and Dreamer Resource Center at California State University, Sacramento. She earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and is currently pursuing a masters degree in Public Policy and Administration. She will graduate in 2019.
Born in Michoacán, México, Mendoza was brought to the United States by her mother when she was just ten months old. She and her family were escaping a life of poverty and felt the United States would provide them with a better economic future.
The family settled in Sacramento and since then, Mendoza has carved out a life filled with grit, determination and motivation – not only to fulfill her dreams, but to honor the sacrifices of her mother who made the dangerous journey to uproot from her native homeland and venture out into the unknown.
As the oldest of two younger sisters and two brothers, Mendoza, a DACA recipient and graduate student, leads by example.
1. What were the early factors in your life that led you to pursue a life in the United States?
“My mother’s migration journey ties back to poverty – to the lack of opportunities to have a decent life in her own homeland. She became an orphan at a young age and survived with what little people in the village could provide to help her. Growing up, but life did not get any better. My mother was and still is a strong woman, but that was not enough for her to get us out of poverty. She tried arduously, but my father left and she had very little support from her older siblings. They too were simply trying to survive. Thus, under these circumstances, she made her journey to the United States. I was ten months old during that journey. I have no recollection being from another country. My childhood memories stem from Poco Way in San José, California. For all I ever knew, I had been born in the United States.”
2. What made you pursue a college education and what barriers did you face?
“I was in the fourth grade when my after school ESL teacher told my mother that if I continued to be aplicada (studious), I could get a scholarship when I became older. My mother didn’t know what a scholarship meant and neither did I, but we knew it had to mean something good. And so, I carried on being determined to get a scholarship. Of course, eventually I learned what a scholarship was, but it wasn’t what kept me going. When I learned that I was undocumented, that people like me had very limited opportunities in this country, I grabbed my dream of obtaining a college degree and didn’t let it go. I knew that having an education was my only shot at finishing what my mother had gotten started: getting us out of the hole of poverty.
“And, I have never let go of my dream to further my education, but there were times when my grip weakened; when I felt like letting go. The first blow was being admitted to UC Davis, my dream school as an undergraduate, and then realizing that I could not get financial support to attend because I didn’t have a Social Security number. Other tribulations came in the form of mental battles regarding my identity and trying to reconcile with the fact that I was not from where I thought I was. It was in these moments of hopelessness, confusion, anger, and sadness that I wanted to let go, but I couldn’t do it. I had to honor my mother’s sacrifice.”
3. What advantages are there to being a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient? Are there any fears?
“The tangible advantage of having DACA is access to a work permit that allows me to be lawfully employed. That work permit has given me some freedom, rekindled my ‘ganas’ (determination), and sparked in me the courage to dream big. DACA has created a bridge between my education and career aspirations. Before its existence, I never gave much thought to my career goals because it was disheartening to think that no matter how many degrees I earned, I would never be able to flourish into a working professional. Now I can think about my career goals. But, DACA can also be deceitful because it can give a false sense of security and stability. The reality is that it’s a temporary and unsustainable program, tied to the whim of politicians. My life and that of many other DACA recipients often feels at their disposition. Thus, it is not a real solution to the larger problem of a broken immigration system.”
4. What are your duties as the program coordinator at the Serna Center and the Dreamer Resource Center?
“As the program coordinator of the Serna Center and Dreamer Resource Center, I assist in the recruitment, development, enrichment, inclusion, retention, and experience of Sacramento State undocumented and immigrant student populations. In consultation with Dr. Virídiana Díaz, assistant vice president of Strategic Diversity Initiatives, I am responsible for the planning and implementation of services and programming under both centers. In addition, I identify and expand on and off campus partnerships and collaborations to help undocumented, immigrant, Chicano/Latino and other underserved students overcome the challenges that get in the way of achieving academic, personal and professional excellence.”
5. What resources are available to undocumented students at the center and how many use the services?
“The Dreamer Resource Center is designed to serve undocumented students and students from mixed-status families by offering personal support, assistance with completing the California Dream Act application as well as academic advising, access to attorneys who provide free legal consultations, scholarships, workshops tailored to their academic, personal, and professional needs, and other support services. All of the services provided are equally accessed by all students.”
6. What are the biggest challenges you face in trying to engage undocumented students on campus?
“It is difficult to know which students are undocumented, which does not facilitate outreach efforts. Additionally, some students are in different stages with their undocumented identity: they might be in a phase of denial, early acceptance, or empowerment (or a mixture of these). Depending on where they are in their lives can influence how engaged they are with the program and activities related to undocumented students. Lastly, our program is affected by the political climate, which means we need to be flexible and ready to address the immediate needs of our students (i.e. emotional and/or legal).”
7. What is the No. 1 issue that undocumented students face? What are other issues that are important to undocumented students?
“Some of the issues are financial instability and limited access to resources. Some students for example do not meet the criteria for the Dream Act and therefore cannot receive state financial aid to pay for tuition costs. Other students don’t qualify for DACA and again, are excluded from the benefits that this brings. Other issues are the constant worry of having to navigate when and if they should disclose their immigration status in order to receive the support they need. Additionally, relationship building (i.e. mentorship or personal relationships) are affected by the student’s lack of legal immigration status.
“Some students keep their status a secret and share it with people only very close to them. You can imagine how this can impact their social and individual identity. Undocumented students also have higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression because their lives can be full of uncertainty and the fear of deportation – of being separated from their families and having life as they know it end at the blink of an eye.”
8. How do you define success in your work? What factors make your job difficult and/or easy?
“I define success by when a student reaches out to me for help. Often times that’s the first obstacle to overcome: for students to know that I am someone they can trust and can come to for help. Success is also being able to help make their personal or academic lives better by simply informing them of existing resources or connecting them to another person that can help them. Ultimately, I define success by creating a campus culture that is sensitive and knowledgeable to the experiences of undocumented students because together we are stronger and better aligned to help make their dream of a college degree a reality.
“One of the best parts of my job is conducting Dreamer Ally Trainings and seeing the growth in audience members – seeing how they become better prepared to assist undocumented students. I know that I cannot do this work alone. We need faculty, staff, administrators, community members, students, student leaders, and student employees to all be knowledgeable about issues pertaining to this student population. As a result, they go out in the field and have better interactions with undocumented students and students from mixed-status families.”
9. Whats the difference between undocumented and regular students, aside from immigration status?
“Undocumented students exhibit an unwavering energy in pursuit of their dreams, despite the many obstacles they face. They redefine the possible by accomplishing the seemingly impossible. They do not stop at the face of economic, immigration, or social barriers, but instead remain persistent. They have tenacity to succeed and are driven by their desire to help others, to honor their parents’ sacrifice, to be an example for other younger undocumented students. Their reasons are many. Their reasons are unassuming.”
10. Are there any fears right now with what is going on politically with the Trump Administration? How do you respond and make students feel better?
“The fear of deportation, disclosing immigration status, and living with uncertainty has always been present, but it has intensified with the new political climate. The new executive order on immigration calls for stricter enforcement of immigration laws – this includes hiring more ICE agents to increase deportation raids. Students and their families can be faced with ICE encounters and the best we can do is educate students on their constitutional rights. Attorneys from the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, for example, offer immigration briefings and individual consultations to answer legal concerns students may have. We also host support groups for students to rebuild their energy and keep moving forward in the new administration.”