This week ‘s column is about the first undocumented student to receive a full scholarship through MVYouth — Larissa de Oliveira. I am honored that Larissa has chosen to share her story as I know it can inspire many students who dream of attending college but lack the financial means to do so, and feel confused about their legal status and how that impacts their aspirations.
How old were you when your family moved to the United States?
I was 5 years old. I have an older brother who was also born in Brazil, and two young siblings who were born in the U.S. All of my years of education thus far have been on the Island.
When did you start to realize that things might be different for you?
In middle school, when the bank came to school to talk about opening an account to save for college. I know it might sound silly, but it was then that I started to feel the weight of my status and my family’s financial struggles. My family was working hard to provide for us; seeking that chance of a better life and saving money for college was not in the cards. My parents always encouraged me to get good grades and participate in school, but we were all in denial about what to do when I finished high school. Like most Brazilian students’ parents, mine didn’t attend college, and I am the first to pursue higher education.
What were the things that motivated you? Is there a secret to your success?
I would say seek out people you admire and humbly ask for guidance — be honest about your goals and status. Also, be prepared for people to not understand and be so overwhelmed by their lack of information on immigrants’ status and higher education that they won’t know how to help. You have to do a lot of the work yourself. Be realistic. I am going to UMass Amherst, and I am thrilled about it. However, when I started high school, I dreamt about Yale because you hear that Ivy Leagues are the gatekeepers of success — that’s not true. Having an education is the ultimate goal. You will feel frustrated, defeated along the way, but don’t let bad days or interactions with people who are supposed to guide you deter you from giving your all — if anything, you will always know that you left everything on the table.
What does it mean to be undocumented?
A lot of people don’t understand that. When someone says they are undocumented, what that means is that they cannot leave the country because they will not come back, they don’t have social security numbers, work authorization, and it is very difficult to attend college because one can be admitted to college but have to pay tuition as an international student because colleges assume that you don’t pay taxes. Undocumented students don’t get in-state tuition rates regardless of their parents paying for taxes. Most immigrant families don’t have the means to pay for an almost $50,000 in-state tuition.
Do you have plans for when you graduate?
I am trying to stay focused in the moment and savoring every aspect of living my dream of going to college — it’s wild to me still. But I hope to help families and other students get access to information. So many Brazilian Islanders have this idea that even if you go to college, you will not get a diploma as an undocumented individual or that you cannot go to college. It sounds insane, but it is a core belief. I hope to be another member of our community who advocates for access to education, information. I will never forget the moment I found out I was one of the finalists, and I don’t think I will ever forget. I am so grateful for this opportunity.