Brave students and a changed college

I have been left mute by the Trump Administration’s obscene solution to deterring desperate Central American immigrants from crossing our southern border by intentionally separating children as young as a year old from their parents — and without the records and other processes in place to reunite them. What words of ethical or humane appeal would be of use in a universe where human suffering is viewed strategically, as a message to prospective immigrants that the United States will no longer meet their dreams of freedom, and as a threat to all American citizens that our southern border will remain a source of anguish and embarrassment until President Trump gets his big beautiful border wall.

Beyond the necessary marches and demonstrations locally and across the nation, here is a story I hope will inspire you. On the evening of July 3, I attended a graduation ceremony at Vassar College for 19 undocumented high school students who had taken part in a 10-day pre-college program, Adelante Student Voices, whose goal was tersely expressed by one of the student-made posters on the wall of Vassar’s stately social room: “We are college-bound. We are undocumented. We are unapologetic.” As Gabriela Quintanilla, the director who arrived as an undocumented 13-year-old, and Katia Chapman, a member of her planning committee, explain, Adelante is a “safe space for undocumented students in New York State to explore their legal status and routes to college with their peers and professional staff.” The organization also works with colleges and universities that wish to welcome more undocumented students. 

The Adelante students had made the trip north from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, El Salvador and Ecuador. Though I was attending the ceremony for the gifted young man for whom I’ve become legal guardian, most of the parents had crossed the border with their children and now held jobs in the shadow economy; they had taken off work and driven two or three hours to celebrate this important milestone in their child’s life. At my table, a Mexican couple in simple work clothes had brought a bouquet of flowers for their daughter, who, as the mother told me, had conquered her fears of leaving her family for the first time to stay in a dormitory for 10 days. 

Though the students had been instructed to bring nice clothes for the graduation, the boys wore jeans and T-shirts. But the girls had brushed out their beautiful, straight, waist-length black hair until it shone, and they wore dramatic party dresses of lace and silk with cut-out sleeves and uneven hems, the petite among them augmenting their stature with heels so high their feet must have ached.

In addition to a trip to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, with its rich immigration history, Adelante had offered the students visits to CUNY Baruch, Vassar College, SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Ulster, as well as lessons in how to apply to college, how they might overcome the current near impossibility of obtaining financial aid without a Social Security number, and of course the kinds of academic experiences offered by colleges. There had also been sessions in which each student told her or his immigration story, often harrowing tales they had never before shared. In total, the lesson had been that, although the road would be difficult, it could and should be taken; the students owed it to themselves to go to college and prepare for the work they wanted to do — work that would contribute to the country they already loved.

After a buffet supper, there was an inspiring keynote by a young woman who had gone to Bard as an undocumented student on a full scholarship.  Then the five counselors (themselves college students, two at Vassar, with Peruvian, Mexican and Vietnamese heritages) described the strengths of each of the students in their groups, after which the students each took the microphone to express their thanks for the learning and love they had received, and their renewed determination to go to college.

I had gone to Vassar in the years when it was a staid, upper-class women’s college. As the daughter of immigrants, on a scholarship, I had the conflicted loyalties of an outsider, and it had never occurred to me to reach out to the handful of students of color, imported from African nations. Yet I had studied so deeply and with such focus at Vassar that I regretted when years later it became co-educational, and I’ve never lost the soft spot in my heart for my time there.

Watching these brave young Latino students receive their Adelante diplomas gave me new hope for how far any institution can come in expanding its sphere of welcome, if they allow creative young people to follow their imaginations. May we all open our hearts in similar ways.  


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.