UC Merced celebrates undocumented graduates during luncheon

UC Merced students Berenice Arango, left, and Elizabeth Meza Torres embrace during a graduation celebration for undocumented students on Friday, May 13, 2022 at UC Merced in Merced, Calif.

UC Merced students Berenice Arango, left, and Elizabeth Meza Torres embrace during a graduation celebration for undocumented students on Friday, May 13, 2022 at UC Merced in Merced, Calif.

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Elizabeth Meza Torres was beaming with pride as she took photos Friday with other undocumented students graduating from UC Merced.

Meza Torres, 22, daughter of two farm workers who moved from Mexico to Delano when she was 6, is the first person in her extended large family to graduate from college. She eventually wants to go to law school to become an attorney.

Many of the 60 students on hand for Friday’s UndocuBobcat Graduation Ceremony shared similar stories. The event was hosted on campus by the UC Merced Services for Undocumented Students, prior to the university’s main commencement ceremonies scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

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UC Merced student Elizabeth Meza Torres smiles during a celebration recognizing UC Merced undocumented students who are graduating this weekend on Friday, May 13, 2022 at UC Merced in Merced, Calif. shawn jansen [email protected]

“We’re here to recognize our undocumented community here at UC Merced and the trials and tribulations that quite a few of them go through,” said Alejandro Delgadillo, the school’s associate director for educational equity and access.

“Not only to be able to be eligible for college admissions like any first generation student but also the abilities to find the financial means and support to continue on with their education.”

Delgadillo said 95 undocumented students are graduating from UC Merced this weekend. There are around 600 undocumented students on campus, out of a total population of roughly 9,000.

“These are young people who come from communities that contribute back not only to the state of California but nationally,” Delgadillo said.

“These young people are going on to medical school, law school and these are the people doing the research or bio-medical research that may lead to the cure of cancer or they’re helping NASA to explore the universe and so forth, so why not support them.”

UC Merced Professore Kit Myers was the keynote speaker at Friday’s celebration. He called their stories inspiring and heart-warming.

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Dancers from the group Ballet Folklorico de UC Merced performed during a ceremony recognizing UC Merced undocumented students who are graduating this weekend on Friday, May 13, 2022 at UC Merced in Merced, Calif. shawn jansen [email protected]

“You and your families have faced obstacles and barriers that most others don’t have to face,” Myers said. “It’s not as if those barriers are already there. They were strategically placed there to make it nearly impossible for you and your families to succeed.”

Meza Torres says she didn’t even know college existed until middle school. It wasn’t until high school that college became a goal. One of her teachers de ella watched her win a class debate and suggested she go to law school and become a lawyer.

It’s the first time she heard somebody other than her parents say she could go to college.

“I come from very humble beginnings,” Meza Torres said. “We were dirt poor with nothing. I grew up in a bad area. I was exposed to drugs, alcohol and gangs. I asked my high school counselor about scholarships and other avenues for financial aid and they didn’t know of any. When your counselor tells you they don’t know it creates anxiety. You wonder ‘how am I going to do it?’”

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UC Merced student Edgar Martinez receives his silver undocumented stole during a celebration recognizing UC Merced undocumented students who are graduating this weekend on Friday, May 13, 2022 at UC Merced in Merced, Calif. shawn jansen [email protected]

Fortunately, Meza Torres found the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project and learned what financial aid opportunities and scholarships were out there for her. She learned how to apply for colleges.

Rene Rodriguez, 22, faced similar hurdles as an undocumented student at UC Merced. Rodriguez is graduating as a double-major in human biology and psychology on Sunday.

Rodriguez came to California from El Salvador when he was 12 years old because his family didn’t feel safe.

“UC Merced was the newest school so I thought it would be a new opportunity and a chance to take have access to resources nobody has had before,” Rodriguez said.

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UC Merced students Beatriz Lopez (left) and Elizabeth Meza Torres pose for photos during a celebration recognizing UC Merced undocumented students who are graduating this weekend on Friday, May 13, 2022 at UC Merced in Merced, Calif. shawn jansen [email protected]

Rodriguez wants to become a doctor and plans to enroll in medical school in 2023. However, he says it was tough to find internships and volunteer opportunities in hospitals as an undocumented student.

“The job opportunities are extremely low,” Rodriguez said. “Not many places hire undocumented students. Internships and scholarships are tough, even trying to volunteer at places can be tough. I was able to come by some opportunities through extreme networking.”

Delgadillo applauded the undocumented graduates for their persistence — not only overcoming the hurdles and obstacles other students may not have to overcome — but also graduating college during a pandemic.

“Don’t let where you start determine who you are,” Delgadillo said.

Each graduate was given a silver stole to wear over their graduation gown with the word “Undocumented” printed on one side and a picture of a butterfly on the other side.

The monarch butterfly has become a symbol for undocumented students because the butterfly migrates to survive.

Meza Torres is the oldest of five siblings. She’s said she’s shown her younger brother and sisters a path to graduating from college.

“More than anything I feel like a trailblazer for my brothers and sisters,” Meza Torres said. “I can help them get into schools like this. They won’t have the same anxiety and worries that I had. Now I’ve got them. I can show them how.”

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UC Merced student Beatriz Lopez poses for photos with her parents during a celebration recognizing UC Merced undocumented students who are graduating this weekend on Friday, May 13, 2022 at UC Merced in Merced, Calif. shawn jansen [email protected]

Sports writer Shawn Jansen has been covering Merced area sports for 20 years. He came to Merced from Suisun City and is a graduate of San Diego State University. Prior to the Sun-Star, Shawn worked at the Daily Republic in Fairfield.

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