A few weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election, we sat down with UCSB student Katia Ambrocio, a fourth year student majoring in Spanish and art. For this article, Ambrocio chose to disclose her identity, her status and her experiences as as an undocumented student at UC Santa Barbara.
An active member of UCSB IDEAS and the Dream Scholars Resource Team, Ambrocio serves as the Dream Scholar Peer Advisor at the UCSB Financial Aid and Scholarships department.
Why did you choose to attend UC Santa Barbara?
That’s a funny story. I initially had done early admissions with Mills College. That was my ideal school, where I really wanted to go, I got in and everything was going well.
I had a college advisor from an organization in the Bay Area called 10,000 Degrees and they urged me to have some options and apply to other schools. After reviewing my other admissions, I still was set on going to Mills College. I submitted my intent to register there. I am from the Bay Area and I have family in Oakland, so my idea was to cut my costs by living off campus with family members. Since Mills was a private school, they decided to pull back some of my aid because of my off campus budget – and it took away something like $20,000.
I couldn’t afford a $65,000 school without support. The day before the deadline to submit intent to register at other universities, I was freaking out. My advisor came over and said `let’s look at your options.’ I debated between NYU, USF, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz – and it came down between USF and UCSB.
It was the financial aid that I received here at UC Santa Barbara that decided it. I could afford it and out of out-pocket costs weren’t going to be so much that I couldn’t work to pay it off. It was really the financial support that drew me to this school. I didn’t really know anything about UC Santa Barbara and I didn’t have any friends coming here.
I just took a leap of faith.
What were you interested in, when you were growing up? And did this influence your choice of major?
Definitely the arts – it’s always been my passion to draw or paint or do crafts. Anything that I could do with my hands that had a creative aspect, I loved. I also loved literature, the great tradition of novels in Spanish.
I came undeclared. I was thinking about doing something in STEM major because I really enjoyd math, but after taking a couple of classes in the Spanish and the art departments, I decided to go with a double major between these two disciplines because they’re two things I’m extremely passionate about.
What were some of your first impressions of the community here at UCSB?
Demographically, I found it to be very similar so it wasn’t a culture shock or anything. I’m originally from Sonoma County where it was predominantly white and with a small mix of everything else. I found it to be very much the same here.
The campus…I fell in love. My first year, I lived in Santa Cruz Hall. Having the beach right across the street was really wonderful. I did consider moving back home at some point and going to San Francisco State because I felt homesick. It is such a long drive home. My only drawback to being at UCSB was I wasn’t close enough to being able to go home for the weekends.
How close are you as a family?
I’m very close to my mom and my sisters. I’ve always been with them. Since I have come to UCSB, a lot has happened in my family. Not being able to physically be there has been hard on me -- and I know it’s also been hard on them as well.
I’m the youngest in my family. My two older sisters have children. They are both considering going back to school and have started going back to the community college back home.
My older sister had graduated high school back in 2005, when the Dreamer Movement was going on. I saw her go through the anxieties of getting support to go to college. She had been admitted to Dominican University. She had this whole ambition of going into the medical field -- and it didn’t go through. She didn’t have financial aid to go to Dominican. So her dream shattered in front of her. She lost motivation. I don’t blame her – I don’t know what I would have done. She did go through the community college. She had the AB540 qualification but she still couldn’t afford to finish because she didn’t get financial aid. So that’s why she stepped back from school.
And my other sister, unfortunately, she can’t receive DACA. She is trying to figure out how to pay for it too – and how she can get time to work and study, AND raise her daughter. She can’t get DACA because of certain qualifications she doesn’t meet-- little details, just these little documentation points. There are certain things that you need to have – you have to have some documentation to prove you were here, like on June 15th of 2012…can you remember where you were in 2012? On June 15th? Not really. Most people can’t. So those are the little nitty-gritty details that cause people to fall through the cracks.
What drew you to join advocacy organizations for undocumented students?
Even in high school I was involved with organizations. I co-founded an organization at my high school called Students for Solidarity, because within our high school there was a lot of antagonizing of people of color, or people of undocumented status.
It began during my junior year in high school. I had two teachers – it was my English and history teachers that co-taught – and they didn’t go by the standard textbooks. We were reading Howards End and Ronald Takaki – things that I wouldn’t have been typically exposed to at that point in my education. They really gave me the perspective that there was something I could do about these issues.
So that’s when me and a couple of students from that class started that group. For my senior year, we had to do a community-based project. I decided to work with the English Language Development classes. I myself had never been in them – I was thankful that I picked up English very quickly when I moved here when I was younger but I saw that was a big struggle for a lot of my peers.
In 2012, DACA came out and that’s when I came out and started telling people about my status. I think that openness really helped me later on, with having parents and younger students be comfortable with me speaking to them about college and just the possibilities that they had. Higher education access became one of things that I really wanted to be involved in.
When I got the opportunity with 10,000 Degrees, they told me about UCSB IDEAS. I got involved with them, and through UCSB IDEAS, I joined the Dream Resource Team -- and that’s how I got my current position at Financial Aid.
Talk to us about your role as a peer advisor at the Office of Financial Aid. What do you love about your job? And does it at times get emotional for you, to advise students and families in the same situation?
I definitely love being able to help people who are in my same position. I can see in them who I was four years ago. Being in my fourth year, this experience is really giving me that perspective of being a first year who doesn’t know what to expect. A lot of them come in not knowing how they are going to get by for the next four years. I’m able to provide support by giving information about financial aid how-to’s, or even like getting random emails asking where to get books.
I also love being able to help parents and being able to explain to them from a point of shared experience. I feel like it comforts them to hear it from a student who has been in the position that their kids are in. Sometimes I spend thirty minutes with one family because they have so many more questions, because a lot of the time, their student is the first to go to college. I can hear my mom in them, just having all these questions and now I can provide that information to others. I think it’s a really wonderful job.
Sometimes it gets emotional because I know what they’re going through. Sometimes there isn’t anything I can really do – I can’t just hand people money. It’s just not possible. Sometimes, it’s having just to educate people. There are parents and other students who aren’t documented who say they don’t know the difference between the Dream Act and the FAFSA. I am having to constantly be reminding people. This doesn’t just occur in my role as the Dream Scholar Peer Advisor – sometimes it just happens on a day-to-day basis with people in my class or people out in Isla Vista. It comes down to a conversation where I have to educate people.
What are some stereotypes about undocumented individuals that you have encountered? And what do you feel about these statements?
More recently, I keep hearing the statement `you’re just here to take benefits.’ And I have to explain even to people who aren’t really trying to stereotype undocumented people – they just don’t know. I have to explain that undocumented people pay taxes and they can’t receive certain benefits. At my work, I pay into MediCal and Medicaid – all Social Security benefits that I wouldn’t be able to receive. So statements like `you’re just here to receive benefits’ – they don’t know what benefits I’m eligible for and how much I have to pay for those benefits that I cannot receive.
Also, just thinking that we get a benefit because of our status, that people cut us slack. I’ve never really felt like anyone has cut me slack. I speak for myself and I know a lot of other people who have really took it upon themselves to get the opportunities that they have. The idea that we’re lazy in some way -- that is one is predominant. People who say this don’t understand what the status really means and how it affects an individual.
For example, within the past year, I traveled to Mexico to visit my grandfather because he was very ill -- he passed away a month after my visit. I got the opportunity to go by getting Advanced Parole. I had to pay additional money just to get a permit to see my family -- to see my grandfather one last time. This wasn’t a vacation – this was an approved range of seven days during the middle of a quarter. I couldn’t just go during the summer or during winter break. I only got to leave for those specified seven days.
People just don’t know. And sometimes it’s hard having to explain it all to them. Or, even trying to think if it’s worth explaining to them sometimes.
You are very open with your identity as an undocumented individual. Why do you think some people choose to keep their status secret?
I think there’s a lot of comfort with being anonymous. There is a comfort and reassurance that `this can’t come back to me.’ That people will won’t be able to use this against me.
I can definitely say, from my experience, that the reason people take that step is because they are scared of what can happen if they do share this information, of what someone is going to do what this information. What if someone calls Immigration Services on them? There’s a lot of “what if” questions that causes that fear of the negative consequences.
There is also the idea of `how will my peers see me.’ I have friends who don’t tell their other friends that they are undocumented because they don’t want to be seen as `less.’ Or, they don’t want to explain or sit with someone to educate them about it. So they just don’t tell people.
It comes back to it being your individual choice to come out or not as an undocumented person. Just within your own network, within your own immediate world of school or work, it can affect you very differently. I have been fortunate that I haven’t had any really negative experiences with being open about my identity.
Here and there, there can be some experiences. I remember one moment in high school, when the Occupy movement was going on in 2012. They brought outreach to MeChA group members, to come in and try to get the Latino community more involved with the Occupy movement. And so we went to a meeting.
We were just having a conversation on how to get Latinos involved in our community when one of the older members of the movement brought up immigration.
“I don’t want these illegals to come take my benefits!” he said – and more statements like that. And I remember thinking, “This is the space that I’m coming into.” I didn’t know how to react at the moment. (And that was during the time when I had first told people I was undocumented.) I was kinda scared because he just got really agitated and started yelling. I was comforted in the fact that I didn’t have to be the first to step up – the person who came with him was like “Hey – no, that’s not okay -- what if I told you that I’m undocumented?” The man was shocked. He said, “I thought you came in here legally. I’m going to grab my shotgun. You need to leave. Be out of my country.”
Conversations like that have been one of the few times that I’ve encountered the reason why people can fear saying anything. Because that situation can happen – or something worse can happen. There are spaces where I say it and there are space where I just don’t really want to mention it.
So what are your feelings about sharing your experiences for this article?
I decided to share it in an article because what I know about Coastlines and what – it’s a University-affiliated publication. And I’m here speaking as a member of this University, versus me walking into Isla Vista where I don’t necessarily have to share it with someone there.
Maybe in social spaces, it’s not something that I would always bring up. But it has happened where I don’t say anything in social spaces and a friend of mine will bring it up. “Yeah, I’m undocumented,” someone would say. And that’s when I reply, “Yes, me too.” That’s where the conversation will begin, but I won’t necessarily initiate it.
How do you feel about this presidential election?
I have been trying to avoid thinking about it, quite honestly. At first, earlier this year, it was causing me stress and anxiety. I didn’t know what to do – and I still don’t know what to do. It still causes me panic to think about -- depending on who is elected – whether I can keep my DACA or not. Without it, I won’t have a job. And I have to think if this ends this December, how am I going to pay for the next two quarters? How am I going to afford rent? Can I pay for groceries? Can I actually graduate? Those questions start to come up.
And I then I think, okay if I graduate, how I am I going to work afterwards without a permit. It does cause a lot of anxieties about my future. And there’s even more anxiety when I start to think about my family’s future. I have DACA, but not all my family has DACA, so what’s going to happen to them?
So how I feel about it? I FEEL ANXIOUS. I am hoping for the best. That’s all I really can do. That’s what I go on – the hope and my optimism that things are going to be okay. Because even before DACA, we still managed. That’s where I’m drawing my strength from – even before, all of these laws, we still managed. My mother has managed without DACA. My mother has been able to support three daughters by working at a dry cleaning business. It’s hard work, but she’s done it because she saw the need to – because she didn’t have that opportunity in Mexico. Even if the earnings seem so little here, it’s still more than what she would’ve gotten in Mexico. So I rely on that example -- the previous experiences of what my mother does, to know that even if I don’t know right now, I’ll figure it out.
What do you feel about the community here at UC Santa Barbara and alumni-led initiatives like the Adsum Education Foundation?
Just because of where we’re at today, I think the campus is becoming more of a space for us. People are more willing to come into spaces like universities, to share and be themselves. There’s always going to be hesitance among some people. Some people are still very cautious -- like “You can’t do that, what if the government finds out.” There will be pros and cons to any community. But I do see those spaces growing here and the information is really being disseminated by people for themselves and for their own peers.
For the last five years, I have helped with the AB 540 College Night hosted by the Santa Barbara AB540 Coalition, which includes the Adsum Education Foundation. I don’t have an official role with the Foundation, but I think it’s really amazing. The resources they provide, between UCSB and SBCC, is great.
Last year, I held a workshop for parents. It was a Q&A – so I shared who I was, what I’ve done and asked if they had any questions. It was good to sit down and have conversations with parents in English and Spanish to calm their concerns. It was refreshing to see that what they didn’t know, they were already finding other ways to find resources with their peers. If I didn’t know how to fully explain something to them, another parent would chime in. They would say “oh my sister, my nephew, this person is doing this – and this is HOW they are doing it.”
I was able to witness that there are community resources growing here – and they are broadened by spaces created by Adsum and other local organizations.
At this point in time, how do you identify yourself?
That would be a long conversation. (laughs)
Primarily, I identify as Mexicana. I have that connection and I think I’m also kind of privileged that some of my family members are documented and have the ability to travel. I can’t physically do it -- and my mother and my sisters can’t do it -- but my aunts can travel and go back and forth – and they bring back so much. Fortunately, my grandmother is able to come back and forth too. She has her residency and so I might not be able to go and see other family members, but I still can see some of them.
I definitely think that being undocumented is also a big part of my identity. I have had so many opportunities because of my willingness to share, my willingness to stand for something and to really speak my mind if I think something is wrong. So it’s also given me the confidence to not be so scared anymore.
I also identify as an artist. I identify as a writer. I have a lot of aspects of myself. I am very family-oriented. I think that’s a big aspect of myself, that I look to take care of people in my life.
Where do you see yourself after graduation?
I hope DACA at least continues – and if not, more expansive immigration ACTUAL reform. If I can imagine DACA continuing, I am definitely seeing myself in graduate school and continuing on to a PhD. program.
And if my path doesn’t lead into education, I would be happy working with organizations like 10,000 Degrees that provide access to high education.
I want to write. I like writing fictional stories. Right now, I’ve had friends who are trying to push me to write a novel. I just don’t know where to find the time! I’m still trying graduate – I’m still trying to keep my 16 units and work and do everything else. I also enjoy writing that relates back to history – something rooted in truth, primarily in Latin American or U.S. history.
I also want to paint. I want to tattoo.
There are a lot of things I still want the chance and the time to figure out. But I definitely think if the ideal outcome could happen, I would have a doctorate in Spanish literature or Latin American culture and I will be teaching.
What makes you proud to be here at UC Santa Barbara?
I think it’s definitely the opportunities I’ve had here, not necessarily the academic side. I’m grateful for a lot of the classes that I have taken that have broadened my scope or let me find out something about myself.
Definitely opportunities that have come out with my work with the community, the opportunities to go to Los Angeles the networking I’ve been allotted by being a UCSB student…I get to meet people who are doing great work. And to get to meet with who are interested in the same work I’m passionate about. I’m able to be connected to people – OR, to get people to connect with other people.
So just this wide network that the University has given me, has made me happy to be here.
If you could travel without consequences or restrictions some day, where would you go?
I would go to a lot of places. I actually have a list of places I want to go. I definitely want to explore Mexico. Mexico City is my ultimate destination – for art, for literature, for everything. I really want to see Spain, Italy, Greece and Thailand. I want to go to Japan.
I really just want to see the differences out there. Because I have that binary identity. I woudn’t say I’m American, but I’m Americanized in so many ways. I’m also Mexicana. Even the cultural differences between those two cultures, I find it all very interesting.
So I want to explore other places and see what other cultural differences arise – just to see what else is out there, and how people live beyond what I know.