Undocumented graduates celebrate at first annual Beyond Borders ceremony

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Undocumented students celebrated with their friends and families at the first annual Beyond Borders Graduation held at the SF State Annex May 17.

Improving Dreams, Equity, Access and Success, a student organization founded in 2008 to help undocumented students with issues related to AB540, coordinated the graduation. IDEAS worked in collaboration with Project Connect, a program that helps students develop professional leadership skills, and the AB540 Educational Equity Task Force, a coalition that supports educational goals of undocumented SF State students.

AB540 exempts eligible undocumented students from paying much higher out-of-state tuition at public colleges in California. Fear of deportation often make undocumented students reluctant to disclose their immigration status to their school or counselors, preventing them from receiving proper educational and financial advising, according to AB540.com. Students who choose to disclose their status and qualify for AB540 are eligible to pay in-state tutition. At SF State, the savings amounts to more than $372 per unit, according to the University’s fees and expenses webpage.

The ceremony, which was first of its kind at SF State, celebrated the accomplishment of 25 graduates with close to 300 friends and family in attendance. The smaller setting created a unique, more personal atmosphere, according to IDEAS advisor Nancy Jodaitis.

“It’s more intimate, so people tell their personal stories,” Jodaitis said. “The stories are all different, but the challenges and struggles are very similar and this is a safe place for them to share.”

IDEAS has recently gained visibility and grown in size, according to Jodaitis, who has been the program advisor for six years. She said that this year, the graduation ceremony was a celebration of students’ resiliency and strength.

“We now have 25 graduates and are giving them the recognition they deserve,” Jodaitis said. “They all have unique struggles, but the support of their families, the task force and Project Connect have helped them succeed.”

Jodaitis said that she was inspired by how DREAMer students pushed forward and opened doors for themselves.

The term DREAMer is derived from the DREAM Act, which provides temporary legal status for immigrant students, then makes them eligible for permanent legal status and citizenship if they attend college or serve in the military, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

Jose Reyes Ramos, 25, said AB540 and resources at SF State have helped him and many other DREAMer students reach graduation.

“If AB540 didn’t exist, we would have to pay double the tuition and we don’t qualify for FAFSA because of our immigration status,” Ramos said. “There are also other programs that offer help, like Project Connect, which lets you borrow books for free.”

Graduating president of IDEAS, Ana Morales, said she was proud to participate in the first ceremony.

“This really creates awareness and solidarity among undocumented students,” Morales said. “Folks misunderstand what it means to be undocumented and they need to see for themselves to understand. This event demonstrates the capabilities of undocumented students.”

Morales said the ceremony celebrates not only the graduates, but their families, who offer students their continuous support and had the courage to immigrate to the United States.

“I think I speak for all of us in saying that it would not be possible for us to be here without our families and their choice to make the journey to the U.S.,” Morales said. “This graduation is not just ours, but our families’ too.”

The ceremony has special meaning for undocumented students and their families who have overcome additional challenges in order to graduate, including difficulties qualifying for financial aid, being charged out-of-state tuition and an abundance of misinformation, according to IDEAS’ graduation coordinator Jacqueline Ledezma.

“These students are so proud,” Ledezma said. “They are usually first in their families to graduate and it’s very emotional. You can see tears everywhere. Their families are very proud to make it this far.”

Organizations like IDEAS provide DREAMer students with support and resources, Ledezma said.

“At IDEAS we basically create a family who go through the same struggles and obstacles to get to where you are,” Ledezma said. “It’s hard to be an undocumented student and IDEAS meetings help you create a family bond with students, faculty and staff.”

Eurania Lopez, the Step to College Program director at SF State, said she hopes events like the Beyond Borders Graduation will call attention to the need for resources for undocumented students. Lopez said she is excited to see what the future holds for DREAMers.

“These graduates should know the sky’s the limit and not to lose hope,” Lopez said. “Immigration changes will happen and they will happen soon.”

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