Gloria Itzel Montiel says she “somehow always knew” she was undocumented. But knowing what that could mean for her future only began to sink in around eighth grade.
She was a bright, academic teenager. Her favorite pastime was going to the library—”that’s what I would do on the weekends for fun,” she says. But despite being at the top of her class, she found she was locked out of programs like A Better Chance, which give students of color the opportunity to be placed into prestigious prep schools with significant scholarships. She realized she was going to have to work even harder to make the future she wanted a reality.
“That was a devastating realization that my academic future was in danger,” she says.
That’s when she began planning. From her high school in Santa Ana, she applied to colleges she knew didn’t have outright rejection policies for undocumented applicants. That included Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, Princeton, and Harvard—the last of which accepted her and offered her a full-ride scholarship. Montiel attended Harvard for both her undergraduate degree and a Masters, and found ways to support herself along the way. Recently, she was the first undocumented person to earn a PhD from Claremont Graduate University in California.
She got her acceptance letter to Harvard in 2004, three years after a version of the DREAM Act, which would have given undocumented people a path to legal residency, was first killed in the Senate. It would be six years before the Obama administration would introduce the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
DACA doesn’t equate to a legal immigration status, but it allows young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16 years old and arrived before 2010 to have work authorization. In some states, that extends to having drivers licenses and social security numbers. At least 1.3 million young people have been granted deferred action under the program.
For Montiel and other young, undocumented people, DACA has been a relief. But it’s always been a temporary measure, and falls short of real, long-term immigration reform. It also excludes the recipients’ parents, and many others who don’t meet the exact requirements of the program. That’s partly why Montiel wants to share her story: As Trump targets undocumented immigrants and DACA’s fate hangs in the balance, it’s important for young, undocumented people to hear about how she navigated the system without DACA protection.
The road to Montiel’s PhD was not straightforward. After graduating from Harvard, she went back to Orange County and worked for an education nonprofit, where she established programs to help engage parents of middle schoolers who speak only Spanish with their children’s schools. Finding a job without the work authorization that comes with DACA was a challenge, but she used an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) to be entrepreneurial, consulting for companies and setting up her own Etsy shop. She did all of this without a work permit; she only applied for DACA in 2013.
But she knew she wanted to go to grad school and was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They accepted her but told her they couldn’t enroll her because of her immigration status. By the time that was resolved, she had missed the deadlines for financial aid and could no longer afford to go.
“So I came back home and I started working and I was actually going through the process of leaving the country to teach abroad,” she says. But friends and mentors encouraged her to ask for late admission and financial aid, and she was able to cobble together the tuition costs.
She took odd jobs like babysitting, fundraised for donations from Harvard alums and others, and landed a grant through the Fundación Harvard en México. That fund is intended for Mexican citizens who will return to Mexico after their graduate studies to work. In Montiel’s case, she decided to stay in the U.S. and converted her grant to a loan instead.
Armed with her Masters, she went back to Orange County, this time working as a consultant for nonprofits, writing grant proposals and reports and helping with events, again using her ITIN.
The first step to convince companies to work with her, she says, was to look for networks, people, and organizations who are set up to help. For her, that meant connecting with organizations like Educators for Fair Consideration, the National Hispanic Business Women Association Orange County, and other undocumented people to share resources and support. Advocacy groups like United We Dream and the Dream Network can be good places to start, she says.
“Just take an inventory of who or what organizations can help them to find the proper opportunities,” Montiel says. “It’s a very unknown territory and a lot of people still don’t know that they can work.”
She explains that it’s important to focus on the work–what you’ve done, and what you can do for an organization you want to consult for.
“Often times [undocumented people] really avoid conversations that will put us in a situation where the issue of status will come out,” she says. “But I think it is extremely important to us in building relationships with community leaders or individuals in our fields who can link us up with those opportunities for consulting.”
As for her PhD, she researched the experiences of undocumented Latinx students at elite private colleges, and plans to use that research to improve access and support for other young undocumented students going through places like Harvard like she did.
“This is where the real work begins of disseminating my findings and really doing what I can to open up opportunities for others,” she says.
This post has been updated to correct the name of Claremont Graduate University. It was previously referred to as Claremont University.