Foothill alum optimistic in the face of DACA uncertainty

Photo courtesy of Liliana Guillen / Special to the Town Crier
Liliana Guillen serves as keynote speaker at her 2015 graduation from Foothill College. After four years at Foothill and subsequently earning a bachelor’s degree from UCLA, she faces an uncertain future due to her undocumented status.

Liliana Guillen attended Foothill College and graduated last spring from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Like many students who return home after completing school, she took a temporary job while trying to determine a career path. But as one of California’s 222,795 residents covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Guillen’s future – much like the policy itself – is in limbo.

Coming to America

Guillen’s parents arrived in the Bay Area with the intention of working for a few years and sending money back home to their family in Guerrero, Mexico, then eventually returning to their homeland. However, the high cost of living in the heart of Silicon Valley proved to be more than the Guillens had anticipated. They moved their entire family to Menlo Park’s Belle Haven neighborhood when Guillen was 10.

“It was really difficult, because of course you don’t speak English,” Guillen said of the transition. “Everyone has the idea that America is amazing, that it’s some sort of paradise, that you’ll be taken care of. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is, the struggles that immigrants go through.”

Guillen applied herself to catching up.

“I put a lot of effort into school,” she said. “I taught myself. I went to the library every single day to borrow those English courses.”

Her determination and hard work paid off.

Finding support at Foothill

Guillen graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School in 2011.

“I got accepted to every university I applied to, and I really wanted to go to UCLA, UC Berkeley or Santa Clara University,” she said.

But because Guillen was living in the U.S. without legal status, she wasn’t eligible for Pell grants or other federal funds that would make college affordable.

“I couldn’t go,” she said. “I did get a lot of scholarships, but not enough to be able to afford it.”

Not about to give up, Guillen took the advice of her high school counselor, who suggested an alternative: Foothill College.

“My scholarships at the time really helped me go to Foothill,” Guillen recalled. “I was super excited that I could continue my education.”

After two years at Foothill, Guillen once again applied to four-year universities and was accepted at UC Berkeley.

“I had sent my intent to register and everything, but I still didn’t have enough money, so I had to stay again,” she said.

To have come so close only to have to turn down an elite university a second time was demoralizing for Guillen.

“It was really hard for it to be two years later and right back to where I started,” she said.

So Guillen remained at Foothill another two years, refusing to let the time go to waste.

“Since I was at Foothill for four years, I was able to accumulate scholarships and I was working, too,” she said. Her scholarships included the Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship, Peninsula College Fund Scholarship, Kiwanis Scholarship, and many Silicon Valley Community Foundation Scholarships. “They were so supportive.”

Dreams achieved

After consulting with other UC students in similar circumstances, Guillen applied for the California DREAM Loan Program, which provides loans to undocumented UC undergraduates. Along with private scholarships, she was finally able to finance her dream of studying at UCLA.

While Guillen was initially interested in studying psychology and pursuing a career as a counselor, she realized that she would need more than a bachelor’s degree. Like so many other first-generation college students, Guillen faced a choice: studying what she loved versus what would help her make the most money after graduation. With that in mind, she switched her major to economics, with a minor in accounting, a field in which she could find employment without having to attend grad school.

Fighting for a future

Armed with a diploma from UCLA, Guillen has returned to Foothill College as a temporary worker in the student services department. In addition to helping with programs such as new-student orientation and the Family Engagement Institute, she is working to ensure that Foothill students have access to all of the opportunities she found on the Los Altos Hills campus.

“We’re working on developing an UndocuAlly within Foothill,” Guillen said, referring to a program at UCs that trains interested staff and faculty to become allies to undocumented students. “It would be the first for a community college, but they’re hoping to expand the scope beyond the campus.”

Guillen said that Betsy Nikolchev, Executive Director of FEI and Denise Swett, Vice President of Student Serviceshave the vision of making UndocuAlly a “spectacular resource,” including a centralized website for all types of resources, “whether you’re a high school student, a college student, a parent, or anyone interested in being an ally.”

While working hard and remaining optimistic have gotten Guillen this far, it doesn’t mean she’s not realistic. She said she was not surprised by the Trump administration’s decision to repeal DACA.

“I was already mentally preparing myself,” she said. “I think I went through a lot of the emotions before it happened.”

As her fate in the U.S. hangs in the balance, Guillen’s emotions are raw.

“It was difficult,” she admitted. “I feel like it’s been such a struggle to get something, and now that I’d just finished college, I might not be able to do anything with my degree.”

But Guillen won’t give up. She’s one of the 24 percent of current DACA recipients who are eligible to apply for a two-year renewal of their DACA permits by the Oct. 5 deadline.

“Those of us who are able to renew have a responsibility to get out there and advocate more,” she said, noting that sharing her story is part of that advocacy. “I’m going to do my part to go to rallies, go to marches and make sure that we get our voices heard.”

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