By Elyse Joseph
Maria Isabel Ramos was born in Caborca, Sonora, Mexico on August 6, 1998. Just six months later, she and her family immigrated to the United States. At the age of five years old, she started kindergarten. Though she had not attended preschool, a kindly neighbor taught her English, enabling her to advance with the children her age who spoke the language. Throughout her elementary years, her family moved from place to place. By the time they settled down in Modesto, California, when Ramos was in the fifth grade, she had attended three different elementary schools.
Throughout those years, Ramos never felt that she was any different from her peers or her siblings. However, at the age of ten, she saw her mother’s tax return. An inquisitive child, she’d wanted to know what her mother had written on the forms. When she looked, she discovered that the tax refund the family would receive on behalf of Ramos amounted to about half of what they would receive in their refund for each of her two siblings, Juan and Rafael, who were born in the United States.
“Mom, why am I worth less than Juan and Rafael?” she asked. Her mother informed her that the difference was due to the fact that she had not been born in the United States.
“I didn’t understand because I don’t remember Mexico… The only things I know about Mexico are what my mom, my grandma, and my family tell me about it. After that I kind of felt disconnected, and I felt that… I wasn’t the same anymore as everybody else,” Ramos said.
Within the same year, her father moved back to Mexico. Though it was a difficult year for Ramos, her newly single mother remained supportive throughout.
More tangible difficulties came when Ramos reached high school. The fact that she did not have a social security number prevented her from going on field trips and applying to certain programs.
“You just get left out,” she said.
When Ramos wanted to enroll in general education courses at a junior college during high school, she was told by a representative that she would not be able to apply due to her undocumented status. Because of this, she did not apply for the program. She later found out from her high school counselor that this was incorrect, and that she could, in fact, apply for such programs.
“After that, I learned not to take ‘no’ and to always keep persisting for what I want because there is no such thing as ‘no,’” said Ramos.
In the wake of this experience, she learned about her rights. Dream Scholars, an organization centered around advocacy and support for undocumented college students, helped Ramos apply for financial aid and understand her rights as a student. Through her involvement with Dream Scholars, she learned about the Stars of the Future Gala and the scholarship made available through this event.
The annual Stars of the Future Gala raises funds for undocumented students in the hope of alleviating the financial needs of the 65,000 undocumented high school graduates each year, 90 to 95 percent of whom do not pursue higher education.
Ramos submitted an application, including two essays which detailed her experience as an undocumented student and as a child of a single mother in financial need, and on Jan. 23, 2017, she was among the first to receive the Stars of the Future scholarship.
She felt honored and relieved that it afforded her the ability to focus on her studies rather than her finances. The scholarship lifted the weight of the heavy prices of tuition and housing from the shoulders of her family and herself.
“I came to realize, I’m proud of being undocumented… because it’s not a right for me; it’s a privilege to be here, so I just treasure everything so much more.”
Ramos will continue to work with the Dream Scholars, and through the Dream Advocates, she plans to help provide the same opportunities to other undocumented students in need of financial assistance and information.
To these students she says, “There is never any obstacle… As long as you put all of your effort into it, you will accomplish whatever you put your mind to.”