Brazilian Voices: Barbara De Paula

Defining yourself by your education, not migration status.


Editor’s note: This new Brazilian Voices series was developed and is curated by longtime Brazilian columnist Juliana Germani. 

In 2008, my parents and I immigrated to Martha’s Vineyard from São Paulo, Brazil. After getting settled, I started elementary school, and had my first real encounter with the English language. As the days passed, my English improved, and I started to accept my new life. During my junior year, I began to think about what life could be like after graduation, and returning to Brazil seemed to be the only option. Based on the rumors I heard over the years from the Brazilian community, you won’t receive a diploma if you are not documented.

There are many reasons why an undocumented student might accept this rumor without questioning. I felt left out and alone at that time. I was battling the limitations imposed on me while trying to figure out who I wanted to be. I felt an overwhelming sense of rejection — I was not allowed to dream like everyone else.

It took me a while to understand why I felt disconnected from my American and Brazilian friends’ realities. It is hard to grow up in this in-between place, feeling like you belong nowhere. For most of my high school years, I felt misunderstood, as if I was walking around with a question mark hovering above my head.

In Jose Antonio Vargas’s book, “Dear America: Notes from an Undocumented Citizen,” he describes this feeling of being unsettled as untraditional homelessness. In this psychological state, undocumented immigrants feel unsettled and unmoored, sometimes having to pretend to be someone else to keep themselves together. His book hugely inspired me to pursue international migration as a field of study. It also helped me understand that the loneliness I felt was not because of something personally wrong with me.

I ended up pursuing a college degree in the U.S. — I saw a college degree as the beginning of a professional career, and my way of rewriting my story. I wanted to be defined by something other than my migrant status. Once I started the college application process, I realized that being undocumented imposed limitations on my academic career that I couldn’t overcome alone, and I felt discouraged. When filling out applications, I recognized that a part of my identity couldn’t be represented by the options presented. My status did not correspond with a box that could be checked. I was accepted into seven universities in the Northeast area, but none of the schools understood that I was not an international student, a citizen, or an asylum seeker. Some even argued that I should have just applied for citizenship, as if that were a choice.

I spent months getting my calls transferred to different departments within the universities. I must have been one of the few, if not the only, person to ever explain to them what an undocumented student was. The DACA Act (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) had just been approved by the Obama administration, which gave some of my friends a chance to obtain some temporary documentation to study. But the date when I arrived in the U.S. didn’t qualify me for DACA.

Once I decided to attend UMass Boston, I discovered that I’d pay out-of-state tuition based on my status. That was the next hurdle I had to clear. Without any federal financial aid, out-of-state tuition had to be paid out of pocket, so I looked into scholarships. Still, most were restricted by citizenship, or did not award a substantial amount. That was when my GoFundMe page was born. I briefly explained why I created it, and posted it on Facebook. I received some scholarships from local Island foundations, but still needed more financial support. I remember feeling ashamed. I was embarrassed to ask strangers for financial help, but I was determined to do all I could. My pride told me that asking for help showed incapability and weakness. I feared that someone or the authorities would target my family because I was honest about my status. I received donations from friends and family, and many questions from fellow migrant parents. My desperation raised questions that some migrants never felt comfortable asking.

I found the financial obstacles that migrant students encounter to be some of the toughest to overcome. But I realized that no one would help a cause they don’t understand or empathize with, which is hard to do when sharing your story can put your safety in danger.

The GoFundMe page got my foot in the door. In 2017, I enrolled as a part-time undergraduate student at UMass Boston. I spent hours commuting three days a week. Within that first year, I developed health issues related to the long commute, making it unbearable to continue to commute. I wanted to be on campus full-time to take advantage of all the university’s opportunities, but couldn’t because of the high tuition cost. Toward the end of that second semester, I was physically and mentally drained. Perhaps not going to a community college as suggested was a mistake, but one that would have kept me from coming face to face with parts of me that I didn’t know existed. The commute gave me plenty of time for self-reflection; I had to confront my pride and shame over the situation. During that season of my life, I was being humbled so that I could come out on the other side more compassionate, purpose-driven, and self-aware. During one commute home, I decided that I wouldn’t drop out, but would move somewhere where I could afford to be a full-time student. Five weeks later, I started to apply to the University of South Florida as a transfer student. The admissions office said I wouldn’t be accepted because I didn’t fulfill some transferring criteria. The disappointments seemed to keep piling up.

Everything seemed so hard. Some people would tell me, “If you work hard, it will happen,” but I was working hard, and nothing was happening. The American Dream is often advertised and portrayed as a smooth ride to the ultimate destination, but for most of us, the ride is long and not well-paved. To my surprise, I was accepted into the university within two months of submitting my application. Three months later, I packed my bags and moved into my dorm. In 2021, I graduated with honors from the University of South Florida, Tampa, with a degree in international studies. This fall, I will be returning to USF as a graduate fellow to obtain my master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies, with a migration concentration.

June is graduation month on the Vineyard, and I applaud all of this year’s high school graduates. You should be proud of your accomplishment. You have shown remarkable resilience. Nonetheless, with this achievement also comes responsibility. Remember that your victories are not only about you. They are also about the people who helped you conquer. Therefore, whenever you are running your race with your eyes focused straight ahead, don’t forget to look at who is running beside you; they also deserve to cross the finish line. My experience as an undocumented migrant student in the U.S. has taught me that no matter how defeated you may seem and how different your reality may look from that of your neighbor, you are never as alone as you feel. During these ups and downs, I had mentors, family members, therapists, and church leaders check on me. They put themselves on the line to give me a fair opportunity to achieve my dreams. Even though I felt invisible to the institutions I thought were supposed to care, I always had someone in my corner.

Sharing part of my story is daunting, but I hope it helps shed light on a reality so often overlooked. Some may think, “See, everyone has access to education. Even undocumented migrants are graduating with a college degree,” but the whole picture isn’t always on full display. Sadly, stories like mine are anomalies, not the norm. The education system, along with many others, is designed in a way that does not leave room for students like me. That is why I created the Instagram page @MV.BRyouth, to show support and share resources openly.

At some point in life, we’ll have to face situations that feel hopeless and discouraging. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask for help can shorten your recovery time after a wipeout. Allow someone near you to help you up. Confront your pride and ego. Challenges are to be expected, and when it does happen, it is OK to ask someone to help you keep going.

Barbara De Paula is a Brazilian immigrant who founded a social media account that aims to better inform immigrant students on how they can attend college in the U.S., regardless of their status.