by Conner Martinez

Note: names and minor details have been changed to protect Hector’s identity.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is a federal program that has helped undocumented young adults live and receive college educations in the United States since 2012. Recipients of the program were raised in the U.S., and for many of them it’s the only home they know. Every DACA student’s story is unique. However, they’re connected by one thing: the challenges that come with growing up in a country that does not recognize their right to exist without persecution. The story of a young man named Hector is an example of how successful the DACA program can be. It not only allowed him to receive the benefits of his hard work and the opportunity to receive an elite-level education, but also allowed him to find his place in the country he was raised in.

Hector grew up in an old singlewide trailer in a rural town. He took on an adult role in his family at an early age, acting as translator for his parents in almost all aspects of their lives. He was not afforded the material comforts most people equate with a top-performing student — which he was.

Back in September of 2017, President Donald Trump attempted to end the DACA program. Fortunately his actions were stifled by a federal judge in San Francisco, and then completely halted when the Supreme Court chose to deny his administration’s final emergency appeal. Trump’s attacks on DACA never fazed Hector; he continued to have faith that his hard work would determine his future. In short, Hector believed in the American dream.

One reason DACA has been so popular is because of stories like Hector’s. Stories of high-achieving DACA students are is often covered by the media, or used by politicians to prove the program’s success. But few realize how difficult it is to succeed as an undocumented young adult. While many DACA recipients perform at the same achievement levels as their ‘legal’ peers, many never make it to college, and some who do make are unable to finish. There are many reasons those students don’t make it, and those problems deserve recognition.

The reality of DACA-eligible students is that their overall performance falls below the performance of their peers who don’t fear constant persecution. This is what makes Hector’s story special. Undocumented students more often than not often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and are often dissuaded from pursuing higher education because they will not be able to afford it, or receive the necessary financial aid. Many eligible students also do not use the program because they fear revealing their undocumented status.

While humble, Hector did not let his socioeconomic situation or status limit his dreams. After going to his high school orientation with his godfather Charlie, a long time YMCA swim coach who met Hector at a soccer match, he began to set his sights on going to college. Charlie researched admission requirements for various colleges, beginning with local schools, then some higher-ranking schools, and then finally elite colleges. Charlie surmised that his godson Hector was motivated enough to do whatever it took to be accepted into an elite-level college.

Hector at a lacrosse game

Knowing the difficulties he would face, Charlie began supporting Hector by providing him with school supplies, helping with various projects, and by checking in on his grades occasionally. Charlie also went to every one of Hector’s high school soccer and lacrosse games; he even hosted players for pancake breakfasts and pasta dinners. What Charlie did was make sure Hector had many of the things most kids in the U.S. take for granted: access to sports, a broader view of the world, and a mentor to guide his steps.

One major aspect of Hector’s life was the language barrier between his parents and life at school. While Hector was supporting his parents, his parents’ language barrier forced them to rely on him heavily to act as translator. From trips to the grocery store to trips to the hospital when his mother was giving birth, Hector acted as his parents’ translator. There was even a time when Hector had to let Charlie know he would be unable to attend a soccer match because he had to help his father purchase a goat. Luckily he was able to act as translator that day and also make the soccer match, thanks to a ride from Charlie.

In high school Hector performed exactly as he aspired to. He worked diligently to earn a 3.9 GPA, and also became a captain on the lacrosse team after learning to play his freshman year. Knowing Hector had big dreams, Charlie began to help him look at potential schools.

Hector on the slopes

After researching DACA-friendly schools, Charlie took Hector to visit a group of small liberal arts schools that are often described as “the little ivies.” Before the trip Hector and Charlie had decided to measure each school based on two categories: how friendly the kids were, and if they were wearing their school’s logo’d apparel. While each visit went well, College of The Holy Cross and Bates stood out because of the way students were extremely friendly, and the pride they showed by sporting sweatshirts and t-shirts bearing the name of their school.

Hector began applying to schools and filling out applications for scholarships with Charlie’s help. When they found out about the Golden Door Scholars program, a program that offered DACA-eligible students partial and full ride scholarships, Hector chose to apply. It’s a selective program that required a three-hour Skype interview. The interview went well, but Charlie knew it was an incredibly competitive program and told Hector that regardless of the outcome, he did great, and that the experience was an opportunity to practice his interview skills.

Hector ended up receiving the scholarship.

Hector remained confident as he began to receive replies back from schools he’d applied to, but Charlie began to worry. He knew that Hector’s application was strong, but he also saw how Hector’s socioeconomic and undocumented status was affecting his experience with admissions. Some schools were reluctant to give DACA students a scholarship, while others were fully invested in providing opportunities to them.

Hector was not accepted at several of his choices, and was waitlisted at others. But he soon found out he’d been accepted to five colleges, with three offering full scholarships. He accepted one — at a prestigious northeastern college. Throughout the admission process Hector had faith in his future; setbacks never made him bitter, only more selfless.

On the day Hector found out he earned the opportunity to go to college, his family had been facing a major economic set back due to a workplace injury that left his father out of work. They had less than $100 in savings. Hector’s family could never have afforded to send Hector to college.

After Hector spent a week at his school of choice, Charlie asked him to rate his experience on a scale of one to 10. Hector said it was a 10. When Charlie asked Hector the same question a second time after a few more weeks, Hector repeated that it was a 10 out of 10. Charlie also asked if Hector had met any other undocumented students. Hector’s reply was, “We don’t talk about that.”

Hector’s story is an example of how successful an undocumented student can be — given the right guidance and motivation. What Hector wants now is to be treated like a normal kid, and he deserves that. No invented borderlines can take away the humanity of DACA students, and their right to exist in the U.S. The opportunities of the U.S. must be open to everyone if the idea of an American dream is to continue. Hector’s story is a testament to why that is true, and why all undocumented young adults deserve the freedom to live on the land they call home, and receive the benefits of their hard work.