Though neither of her parents made it past middle school in their home country, a 26-year-old Fresno woman is making history this month as the first undocumented student to earn a doctorate at UC Merced.
Yuriana Aguilar is set to take part in two ceremonies Sunday to celebrate her degree from the Quantitative Systems Biology Program. Her research focuses on the human heart.
The significance of her achievement was not lost on Aguilar. “It means a lot because there are a lot of people who can’t make it this far,” she said.
It’s too easy for an undocumented student to be thrown off track with the number of roadblocks in an educational path, she said. For example, in 2007, when the Fresno High graduate started at UC Merced, she was not eligible for state or federal financial aid or loans.
“Not to brag, but I was a good student and I was very, very disappointed they weren’t going to help me,” she said.
The Dream Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which are state and federal programs that allow for temporary residency to students, did not come into effect until after she finished her bachelor’s. Undocumented students also are unable to work at any job that requires citizenship, she said, pointing to better-paying office jobs.
So, she sought private scholarships and picked up work at flea markets or other places as she could, she said. When the residency programs came into play, she was able to receive a work permit and begin a work study program.
We’ve very proud of all that she has accomplished. She’s finished her education. She put a lot of effort into it, a lot of sacrifices, given that she didn’t have (immigration) papers.span
Arturo Aguilar, on his daughter’s degree
What kept her going were two parents who pushed her to go to school, despite their own limited schooling. “Somehow, nobody taught them, but somehow they valued education,” she said. “In a family like this, it’s very rare that they value education.”
Her parents, Arturo, 47, and Ana, 46, own a 4-acre farm in Fresno. Originally from Apatzingan, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, they came to the United States about 21 years ago. Aguilar is the second of their five children.
“We’ve very proud of all that she has accomplished,” her father said in Spanish. “She’s finished her education. She put a lot of effort into it, a lot of sacrifices, given that she didn’t have (immigration) papers.”
Arturo Aguilar said he and his wife always pushed their children to go to school and to find a focus of study. Yuriana Aguilar’s younger brother has been studying to become a pilot and will graduate this weekend from a school in North Dakota. Her younger sister is in college in Monterey and hopes to become a doctor, he said.
“Pero, si se puede,” Arturo Aguilar said, meaning, but yes, it can be done. “Yes, it’s possible to get ahead in this country.”
For other parents who lack immigration status, he said, it’s important to support their children completely and never let them drop out of school. He and his wife motivated their children by rewarding them with trips they wanted to take, visits to the Bay Area and amusement parks.
The family plans to celebrate with a dinner after the graduation ceremony. Once her brother is back from North Dakota, the family is planning a party with relatives and friends.
She basically put herself through college (with the aid of) her parents whenever they could help out.span
Alex Delgadillo, associate director of Calvin E. Bright Center at UC Merced
Alex Delgadillo, associate director of the Calvin E. Bright Center at UC Merced, said the opportunities available to undocumented students have improved over the last 15 years. He is in charge of special populations at the university, which includes undocumented students.
“It’s a commitment the entire UC system has made,” he said.
This week, UC President Janet Napolitano announced the system will earmark $8.4 million a year through the 2018-19 academic year for undocumented student support across its 10 campuses. That money will go to loans, legal services and other support.
Delgadillo said Aguilar had a difficult road to her doctorate and her success is unique. “She basically put herself through college (with the aid of) her parents whenever they could help out,” he said.
Aguilar said her story is an example of the country’s need for immigration reform. She’s done all her schooling in California, will get her doctorate soon, but can’t get her residency. “There’s no pathway to citizenship,” she said.
She’s set to walk during the 9 a.m. Sunday ceremony at UC Merced, but will also take part in the Chicano Latino Commencement later in the day. The later ceremony is at least partially in Spanish and she’ll walk with her father.
“I’m very excited for the recognition,” she said, “the recognition of my parents.”
The university is set to hand out 919 degrees during two ceremonies, which are at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday in the school’s South Bowl.
Merced Sun-Star Managing Editor Michelle Morgante contributed to this report.