I Was Low-Income and Undocumented, But I Dreamed of College. Now I’m ACLU’s Deputy National Political Director.

With recent judicial blows to affirmative action and DACA, and attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, many underrepresented students are left wondering: Now what?


Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Cue: a new series from Ms., ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at adove-viebahn@msmagazine.com. Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

With the recent affirmative action and DACA decisions, plus so many recent attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, many underrepresented students must be left wondering: Now what? Do they belong in higher education? Will they have the opportunity to go to college? Will they have a successful career? Will they ever make it? 

Growing up Latina, low-income and undocumented, I had the same questions. That is why I have decided to share my story, with the hope that it will inspire others to keep going, especially given that many colleges and universities have reinforced their steadfast commitment to the value of diversity, even now. 

The mission to expand opportunities for all is not dead, and all of us—colleges and universities, mentors, alumni, students—must double down on our efforts.      

I came to the United States from Mexico in 1993, when I was 13, not speaking a word of English. For many years, I lived in the country without permission to be here. I often wondered what would happen if I were to be deported.

All my life, I liked to study. But, when I was in Mexico, I was made fun of by my teachers and classmates because my mom could not afford to buy the school uniform, and I went to public school with street clothes. By the time I was in seventh grade, I wanted to drop out.

Luckily for me, that’s when I came to the United States. My mom put me back academically two years (which I did not like), but in the United States, I found the support of teachers and mentors who wanted to see me succeed. 

I still remember my English as a Second Language teacher spending countless hours with me in a Houston classroom after school, going over the correct pronunciation of “vote” versus “boat,” introducing me to the chess club, and even driving me to chess tournaments on the weekends while my dad worked as a forklift driver.

I also remember taking the exam to join honors classes and not making it until the third try. The first time, I failed it because I did not speak English. The second time, I made pre-honors classes. It wasn’t until the third time that I was finally accepted into the honors program.  

I know that the recent affirmative action and DACA decisions alongside the attacks on DEI programs are disheartening … but I want to encourage underrepresented students to keep pursuing their dreams, don’t give up. 

My dream was to go to college, but I had a plan B in case I was deported before then. I planned to become fluent in English, so that if I were to be deported, I could work at the airport in Mexico carrying people’s bags. I figured that if I knew how to speak English, the tips would be good.  

Fortunately, I was not deported. Instead, I was found by a Phillips Exeter Academy recruiter who came to my public middle school in Houston, Texas, as part of Exeter’s commitment to educate “youth from every quarter.” I remember being mesmerized by everything he described, but also thinking that I could never make it to Exeter because I did not have the money. During the question-and-answer portion of the presentation, I was the only one who raised my hand. I asked about the scholarship opportunities mentioned, and could not believe what I was hearing: The school would cover the demonstrated need of low-income students who got in.  

Well, I got in, received a full scholarship, and my life was forever changed. Exeter introduced me to a new world and opened so many doors. Even though I was still undocumented and worried about a possible deportation (the concept of being a Dreamer and DACA status did not exist back then), I felt beyond blessed. At Exeter, I learned how to row, ate lobster for the first time, and was able to focus on what I liked to do most—study—without having to worry if my dad would be able to make rent. To me, Exeter was like Disneyland.  

After Exeter, I went on to Harvard for college, Princeton for graduate school, and New York University School for law school. I worked hard, got scholarships to cover all my studies, and had amazing mentors who looked out for me. Thanks to these opportunities, I have been able to pursue my dream job as an immigration advocate and now work at the American Civil Liberties Union as a deputy national political director. Thanks to these opportunities, I am able to provide for my mom who became a widow due to COVID-19. Thanks to these opportunities, I am able to support other young people in my life to pursue their dreams.  

Maribel Nava, Zoe Ortiz and Rosa Vazquez—Harvard University students and members of Act on a Dream, a group of Harvard Students who advocate for immigration reform—attend a rally at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 5, 2017. (Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I know that the recent affirmative action and DACA decisions, alongside the attacks on DEI programs, are disheartening and could lead to even more institutional and structural impediments. But I want to encourage underrepresented students to keep pursuing their dreams, don’t give up. 

There are so many hardworking students out there, and not everyone has the chance to attend a school like Exeter. However, I want them to know that they are not alone and that there are many people and institutions who want to see them succeed. 

I am part of alumni groups searching for ways to support and mentor the next generation. We will continue to push colleges and universities to strengthen policies and practices that ensure all students can pursue their dreams. They can do so by broadening recruitment efforts to underserved communities, developing robust middle school and high school pipelines, increasing need-based supports, and improving campus climates to be welcoming environments for all. 

I am encouraged by the statement made by Claudine Gay, Harvard’s president-elect, after the affirmative action decision, reinforcing the fact that we belong. We belong at Harvard, we belong in leadership, and we help institutions thrive. 

“To our current students, you make excellence possible and you belong at Harvard. Never doubt that,” she said. “To our future students, know that we want you here. We are eager to welcome you to our community.”

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Maribel Hernández Rivera is deputy national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union. She is also a PD Soros fellow and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project.