Introducing our 2018 Scholars

This year we invited eight extraordinary students to be part of our Scholars Program (formerly known as the New American Scholars Program). These scholars have demonstrated resilience and determination in pursuing higher education despite extraordinary obstacles and adversity. Their areas of study are Marketing, Ethnic Studies, Business Administration, Neurobiology, Physical Therapy, Theater, Mathematics, and Geotechnical Engineering. We’re particularly impressed that four of this year’s scholars are juggling both school and parenthood. Please join us in proudly welcoming Alex, Javier, Lorena, Lorenza, Maria, Nadia, Pancho, and Perla into our Immigrants Rising family!


“I have learned to advocate not only for myself, but for others as well. Just like undocumented students before me fought to ensure my path was smoother than theirs, I also aim to give back so future generations face fewer obstacles in their pursuit of a higher education.”Alex

Alex immigrated from the Philippines when she was 11 years old. From an early age, she learned to be resourceful and take every opportunity available to her. During her senior year in high school, she applied to a summer research program at UCLA, where she learned about ways to mitigate the effects of earthquakes on superstructures. This is when she realized she wanted to become a geotechnical engineer.

Alex went to Cypress Community College before transferring to UC Davis, where she became involved in the AB540 & Undocumented Student Center. Knowing the difficulty students have in paying for books, she launched the lending library project as a way to ease the financial burden for undocumented students at UC Davis. Her project went from being able to fund books for 6 students, to helping more than 50 students a year.

She later became the Student Assistant to the Chancellor at UC Davis. In this role, she acted as a voice for undocumented students for the administration. She met with the chancellor once a month and talked to him about the concerns of undocumented students especially after the 2016 elections.

This year, Alex earned her Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering, and she is currently working on her Ph.D., looking at ways to implement cementation treatments to stabilize soil without harming the environment. Her research will be instrumental towards her future career as a professor, when she hopes to help underrepresented students achieve their dreams and provide them a clear path to earn a graduate degree.


“Javier has demonstrated a continual effort to improve himself so he can maximize his impact in the classroom and his community. He uses his academic, personal, and professional experiences as opportunities for self- growth.” Ryan Grady, Making Waves College Program

Javier’s journey from El Salvador to the U.S. began when gangs blackmailed the public school where his mother taught. Fearing for his survival, Javier’s mother sent him to live with relatives in America when he was 12. Javier’s resilience and determination helped him cope with the struggles of living in a country that was completely foreign to him, and with relatives who were not friendly to the LGBTQ community.

Despite the obstacles, Javier persisted. He diligently studied English and quickly built up his understanding of the language from scratch. He enrolled in advanced classes and took advantage of every opportunity available to him. He is now at UC Davis pursuing a degree in Neurobiology Physiology and Behavior and minors in both Gender Studies and Statistics. He plans to enroll in nursing school after graduation and to dedicate his life to patients who most need his help.


“What is so inspiring about Lorena is the amount of herself that she gives to her education, her community and a future that is uncertain. As an undocumented student, she doesn’t know what is around the corner for herself and her family. Yet, she remains motivated and driven to succeed and help others succeed.”Maritza Jackson Sandoval MS, Foothill College Counselor

Lorena knows that education is the key to a better future. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., she was determined to give her son, Christopher, access to the best education and opportunities. She immediately enrolled in ESL courses at Richmond Adult school in order to teach him English. She later went on to enroll in Contra Costa Community College where she was also able to participate in many extracurricular activities. She tutored Calculus and Astronomy to other students; helped build Contra Costa College’s new astronomy lab; and served as a teacher’s assistant in the geology lab. She also helped women suffering from domestic violence at the Latina Center and taught English to illiterate Spanish speakers.

One of her biggest accomplishments has been spearheading Feeding Hope, a program that provides meals and clothing to over 200 homeless people in San Pablo per month. Lorena has devoted over 5,000 hours of her time to just this one program.

Last year, Lorena graduated with honors from Contra Costa College and transferred to San Francisco State University to pursue a major in Marketing. She is working hard to learn the skills needed to compete in the business world and improve her community. Last year, she used her graphic design and marketing abilities to help the San Pablo Economic Development Corporation win a prestigious grant to support entrepreneurship workshops, job readiness programs, career fairs, and childhood obesity reduction in the City of San Pablo.

Lorena plans to finish her undergraduate degree, immediately enroll into graduate school, and use academia as a platform in which to work through some of the most intricate social and political problems that adversely and directly affect her community.


“My daughter was the first person to encourage me to go back to school. I was afraid at first, but she said, ‘Mom, take the opportunity. It’s never too late to follow our dreams.’ Now when someone tells me I’m too old to attend school, I say, “Dreams don’t have a due date.”Lorenza

Lorenza is a single mother who believes that no dream is too big to accomplish. She came to the U.S. escaping violence and in search for a better life. After 11 years of working twelve-hour shifts, she was finally able to go back to school. She enrolled in ESL classes at the Sequoia District Adult School, earning straight A’s and obtaining her GED in just five months.

With renewed confidence, Lorenza set even bigger goals for herself. She enrolled at Cañada College and is currently on track to earning three associate degrees in Economics, Psychology, and Interdisciplinary Studies. She plans to transfer to San Jose State University to study business administration and eventually get her MBA.

Lorenza’s community has played a vital role in her journey, and she strongly believes in the importance of giving back. She is an ambassador at Upwards Scholarships, and cooks meals for the homeless at her church. She is also committed to helping other ESL students succeed in their path to higher education. “Lorenza is not just a model student,” says Alessandra Castello, her former ESL Instructor. ‘She is also a model citizen who doesn’t take anything for granted.”


“Being a first-generation college student carries a lot of weight on my shoulders, but I am working hard to stand out in a field that lacks ethnic and gender diversity. I want to encourage and inspire my community to have more representation in math and science.” — Maria

In 2012, Maria and her family immigrated from El Salvador when she was 21 years old. She took ESL classes at City College of San Francisco while working graveyard shifts at a gas station. When she later began helping students who were struggling with algebra, she discovered her love for math. She was able to make concepts fun and easy for everyone to understand, and realized she wanted to become a math teacher. Helping people has become the inspiration for her to succeed.

Maria started enrolling in more advanced classes—Trigonometry, Precalculus, Discrete Mathematics, and Multivariable Calculus—and received A’s in all of them. She made the Dean’s list multiple times, exceeded the basic transfer requirements, and graduated from City College with a 3.8 GPA.

In the past year, Maria has been a volunteer at Voices of Immigrants Demonstrating Achievement (VIDA), where she helps build people’s confidence in math. “Maria is a great communicator who takes her work and potential very serious,” says Alejandro Jimenez, VIDA’s program coordinator. Maria has been so valuable that the program created a special area called ‘Maria’s math corner’ where students can sit down and work with her.

This year, Maria is transferring to UC Berkeley—her dream school—to pursue a major in Mathematics. She plans to eventually obtain her Ph.D. and teach at a community college, so she can empower and inspire other women of color to pursue majors in STEM.


“The challenges I have faced because of my status have taught me to never give up and to be creative about finding new paths. I know that with the help of my community, mentors, and family, I will overcome anything.” — Nadia

When she was nine years old, Nadia and her family left Brazil in pursuit of a better life in the U.S. Seeing her mother work as a housecleaner after having been a science teacher in Brazil, motivated Nadia to overcome language and cultural barriers, and succeed in school. After graduating from high school with honors, she enrolled at her local community college as a pre-nursing major. She was later accepted into Contra Costa College’s Nursing Program, but was denied enrollment due to her immigration status.

Nadia didn’t give up. She wanted to pursue higher education as a way of honoring her parents’ sacrifices. She transferred to San Francisco State University to study physical therapy and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. She was later accepted to the University of Southern California’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, but her immigration status made her ineligible for government loans and, despite tremendous fundraising efforts, she was unable to cover the tuition gap and, ultimately, had to turn down the offer. This experience brought disappointment and hopelessness, but it reaffirmed her commitment to higher education.

Over the next year, with unabated determination, Nadia made critical connections and studied more, and is now enrolled in the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at UCSF. She hopes to become a resource for other undocumented students pursuing graduate school at UCSF, and be part of a team of healthcare professionals who better represent the populations they serve.


“I am a role model for my family and the indigenous community. I come from a rural community in Oaxaca, Mexico, but I refuse to fit the stereotypes placed on indigenous Mexicans: I am not quiet; and I am not docile. I am an advocate and a leader in every sense of the word.” — Pancho

Pancho grew up speaking Mixteco in the indigenous community of Oaxaca, Mexico. After years of extreme hardship, at 19 years old he decided to move to the U.S. on his own to pursue his dreams of higher education. “I made a commitment to transform my experiences into motivation and ambition for my future. My pain would become my passion. My past would produce my future,” he remembers.

The journey to the U.S. was arduous, and Pancho’s first years in the U.S. weren’t easy. “My American dream was hiding behind nightmares of abuse and trauma. It was hiding behind the dishes I washed, behind the cars I washed, behind the racism I experienced, and behind the English language I didn’t yet understand.”

Despite the obstacles, Pancho never gave up on his dreams and, even at rock bottom, he felt a deep desire to help those around him. He enrolled in Escuela Popular, an adult school in East San Jose, where he was able to improve his language skills and eventually even began to tutor his peers. He was later hired to support undocumented students as well as teach ESL and math to adult students.

Last year, 10 years after arriving in the U.S., Pancho graduated with honors from De Anza College and transferred to UC Berkeley. He is now majoring in Ethnic Studies and conducting research about how the Mixtec community in Ventura County develops literacy programs for future generations. Pancho’s goal is to become a professor to expand knowledge about indigenous communities.


“After reading about the history of Teatro Campesino and working with Borderlands Theater and Campo Santo Theater, I realized that through art we can share knowledge and create healing spaces for members of our community.” — Perla

Perla is a single mother studying Theater at Mills College. She spent her high school years in Arizona, where very few people knew about her immigration status and encouraged her to go to four-year college. Unfortunately, Perla couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition at the University of Arizona and enrolled in community college instead. She enrolled in the theater program, but felt like she didn’t belong and was constantly questioning her talents and trying to find a “better” career choice.

Things changed when she was cast in El Ausente, a play about a man who disappears while crossing the southern U.S. border and the way his absence affects his family. Mirroring her own father’s incarceration and deportation, the play resonated deeply with Perla. For the first time, she was working with a story that was like her own, with characters similar to her and her loved ones. That experience made her realize that the theater she had know so far did not reflect the joys and struggles of the most marginalized members of society, and that theater needed to be created by and for people of color.

Just one year away from obtaining her Bachelor’s degree, Perla’s goal is to create art programs that center on the voices and intersectionalities of everyday people of color. Most broadly, she wants to transform theater into an art form that is accessible to all communities. “Art can be more than self indulgent,” she believes. “It can be healing.”