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My path to an undergraduate degree was anything but smooth.

I’m originally from Lagos, Nigeria, and I moved to the United States in my early teens to pursue a secondary and tertiary education. During my final year of high school, like many other students, I was preparing to head to college. I was accepted into my preferred school and program at the University of Virginia’s (UVA) School of Arts and Sciences. I was on the path to success. But then came a big obstacle: The process for applying for citizenship was slow and arduous, and I hit a major stumbling block when I turned 18 and no longer qualified for citizenship under the parental/guardian filing process, because I was now considered an adult. In addition, there were other clerical setbacks on the part of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that made obtaining a permanent residency out of reach. As a result, I didn’t have access to financial aid or the ability to work, crucial needs that affected my ability to attend college.

Although I was able to secure in-state tuition and some financial assistance from my community of family and friends for my first semester at UVA, I was unable to return, due to the high cost of attendance. This began the “on and off” cycle of my undergraduate experience.

We wrote letters to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine asking for support and intervention in the immigration process. This was about a year before President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, so I could not take advantage of it. Eventually, my status in the U.S. changed. I became a permanent resident, a huge win and a burden lifted, which meant that I could obtain a driver’s license, gain access to student financial aid and begin working. However, even with this newfound access, meeting the financial demands of school and life would remain a struggle, but I was resolute that I would graduate without student debt.

To meet this goal, I juggled six classes (18 credits), three jobs, and one internship during my final year of school. Needless to say, I was stretched beyond my capacity. Challenges notwithstanding, I did it. I completed my undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, without student debt.

Eight years have passed since I graduated, and when I reflect on that period, I ask myself if I would do it again, and the answer is no. Today, I understand that there are systemic flaws in the American education system that make the pursuit of a higher education inaccessible and unaffordable for many undocumented students like me. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as my residency status changed early enough in my college career, making essential options like attending community college with a Pell Grant available to me.

The barriers to college access for immigrant students are intricately compounded and vary by state. In any given state, an undocumented student may or may not be able to obtain in-state tuition, state financial aid, a state identification, or work authorization. Access is the name of the game. And depending on where students reside, they can find themselves blocked by some or all of those hurdles. As immigrant students are often from low-income backgrounds, state financial aid support and work permits make a monumental difference, as they did in my case.

Unfortunately, in the current anti-immigrant climate, there have been further blockages to programs like DACA, which provided temporary protections for immigrants that enabled them to get student aid and work eligibility, among other supports. In July 2021, a U.S. district court ruled that DACA was unlawful, and although individuals who were previously covered by DACA are still protected under set parameters, the program cannot accept new applicants, leaving a growing number of immigrants without the protections and access that DACA would have provided, a massive set of which are either aspiring college students or actively pursuing a higher ed degree.

Undocumented students shouldn’t have to find themselves stuck in limbo in the pursuit of a higher education. For a population that accounts for 1 in 50 students enrolled in higher education institutions across the nation, there must be a path that guarantees educational access and success.

With that in mind, an EdTrust report, “Higher Education Access and Success for Undocumented Students Starts With 9 Key Criteria,” analyzed policies in 15 states with significant populations of undocumented college students to determine whether their policies are making it easier or harder for undocumented students to attain a college degree and career success. It includes state and federal policy recommendations that call for access to public benefits, in-state tuition, and professional authorizations for all undocumented individuals, with the ultimate goal of creating a pathway to citizenship.

As Immigrant Heritage Month draws to a close, let’s remember that America is a nation built and enriched by immigrants, and acknowledge the contributions of many immigrants to the America we know today. It’s time to make it easier for immigrant students to pursue a higher education, since their success is closely linked to our nation’s success.