The Experience of an AAPI Undocumented Student
In 2018, there were over 450,000 undocumented students pursuing a college education. Within this group, about 25% identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI). This data shows that a significant number of college students navigate the experience of having an Asian American identity and undocumented status.
To better understand this experience, BestColleges spoke with Aurora — a former college student — who describes how she came into her identity and persisted to complete her degree.
Aurora is a college graduate and alum of Queens University of Charlotte. She received her bachelor's degree in finance with a minor in math and data analytics. Soon, Aurora will join Bank of America as a financial analyst in the CFO group, fulfilling one of her long-term goals. She is passionate about children's rights issues and started a UNICEF club while she was a student at Queens University. In her free time, Aurora enjoys photography, cooking, hiking, and traveling.
What were the most important factors in your college choice process?
Senior year of high school was a pivotal moment in my life because of my DACA status. Scared and anxious of the upcoming election in 2017 and what it could mean if Trump got elected — my parents made the decision to move back to India after I graduated. I felt stuck. I had grown up here, the U.S. was my home, and I knew nothing else. It felt like all my hard work in school, the straight A's, SAT scores were all going to a waste. I knew I wouldn't have the same opportunities in India.
Looking around, every college had so many hurdles surrounding it. No in-state tuition, very limited scholarships, no federal aid, and the list goes on. I applied for 10 or 20 scholarships that I found online but when I received the Golden Door Scholarship, it truly changed my life. My family decided to stay, and I was able to attend an American university and have the chance to follow my dreams.
The Golden Door Scholars Program had a variety of partner schools to choose from and I found myself drawn to Queens University of Charlotte because of its amazing business school and connections in Charlotte, North Carolina. As an incoming finance major, I knew residing in Charlotte would open doors for me because of it being a financial capital in the U.S. Overall, Queens seemed like a great fit for me because of their welcoming of diversity and new ideas, and that is why I chose to attend that university.
How did you come into your identity as an Asian American? Did your college experience play any role in this?
I grew up in a small, Southern town in South Carolina where I was the only Indian American girl in my school ever since I started from K-12. This was very tough sometimes and I often felt stuck between two cultures, never fitting in. I felt isolated and tried to "Americanize" myself the best I could in order to keep up with my peers.
At home, my parents always spoke in Hindi and tried to teach me about the culture as much as they could. But since I could never visit India because of my immigration status, I still felt quite disconnected from the culture and my family.
When I came to college in a big city like Charlotte, my eyes began to open a little bit. Queens University still lacked other Indian Americans, but I was able to befriend the only two other girls of that background that attended Queens. Becoming friends with them was amazing, because it showed me how many things we had in common — including values, tastes, and preferences — and it made me more accepting towards my culture rather than embarrassed or ignorant of it.
In my junior year of college during the pandemic, I started listening to Indian music, cooking Indian meals, connecting with family, and really immersing myself into the rich culture I was born in. They say that college helps you find yourself and as an Asian American in the U.S., branching out and accepting who I was helped me to embrace my identity.
How did your college support your identity as an AAPI and undocumented student?
My college had a great diversity and inclusion program, which encouraged us to embrace our identities and feel comfortable in a large university. I actually attended a program called "Thrive," which was a one-week-long program right before the first year started in which students from diverse and first-generation backgrounds could ease into college life. This program and the other initiatives Queens had in place, such as a mentorship program, really helped me to feel like I belonged in a place where the majority of people didn't look like me.
Queens was also supportive of undocumented students and the university president even sent out a campus-wide email when the DACA program was canceled in 2018, urging for support in the community. Queens' liberal arts curriculum also always encouraged students to think more broadly and to serve communities in need. These little things really helped me feel safe on campus and that I could be myself.
As an AAPI student, how did your identity and status influence your campus experiences?
Being a first-generation student and DACA holder, there were certainly a lot of experiences I was not aware of or struggled to learn about. Most of these were educational. I found myself surrounded by peers in my business classes who had family members as executives in large corporations or simply had connections into that world. Whereas most of my family was in India and mostly from poor backgrounds.
I felt like I was starting from square one and that my peers had a leg up in certain areas from hearing about it from their friends or family friends. I just felt unaware and had to learn everything by myself.
Even when it came to networking and meeting other successful people, I had to learn how to speak in that vernacular and gain confidence in my abilities. There were times where I felt like my professors gave special treatment to other students, as well. However, my identity is rooted in hard work from my parents and past ancestors, and those values and dedication helped me to succeed even more in college and my career than I could imagine.
If you could give a current college student that shares the same identities and experiences as you any advice, what would you say?
I would say that as much as you want to assimilate into the culture around you to fit in and seem more appealing to others, sometimes you are meant to stand out. Ultimately, becoming close to the culture you were born in will help you find who you really are.
We should all stop pretending and caring about what others think and embrace the beautiful lineages we come from. Whether that is beauty standards or kids making fun of your food, your language, the way you dress, all of that is a piece of you that no one can take away.
Be proud of it — being different is a blessing. All of the struggles and hurdles as a first-generation or undocu/DACA holder you may be going through will only help propel you into success. Keep going and most importantly, do not give up hope!
Feature Image: The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images