For DACA academic counselor, it’s about helping all undocumented students

Valeria smiles as she talks to someone

Valeria Chavez-Ayala is an academic counselor for the Undocumented Student Program at UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

“I was born in Jalisco, Mexico in a small town called Autlán de Navarro. I moved to the United States when I was 5. I have no recollection of my life before that. My mom has shared some stories with me, but she’s not willing to open up about her migration story.

My father was murdered when I was 3, so I think that has a lot to do with her not wanting to talk about it. She doesn’t want my younger sister and me to know the pain she went through. Our parents’ stories don’t often get told, and they’re the reason, a lot of the times, that we came to the United States. I think it’s important to honor the pain, but also acknowledge the commitment that she had to give us a better life. It’s probably not how my mom always envisioned her life, but it is what happened.

Valeria and her younger sister when they were kids

Chavez-Ayala (right), 7, with her younger sister, 5. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Chavez-Ayala)

We moved in with my uncles in the San Fernando Valley in California. We moved around a lot, going from place to place. My mom eventually got with my stepdad, so we moved in with them. He was extremely abusive. I would have conversations with my mom, telling her, ‘This is not OK for us. We need to move.’

She was reluctant to leave, though, because she was economically dependent on this one person. In my head, I was thinking, ‘I need to get my college degree, so that won’t happen to me.’ Now, I know there were other factors involved. But at the time, that was my frame of mind. I didn’t want to be in the situation that my mom was in, feeling like she couldn’t leave, that she had to stay there.

We finally moved to the Bay Area when I was 14. My grandma, who was living in Newark, took us in. There were 12 family members — cousins, uncles, tías — living in one house. That happens a lot — for the support it offers, but also because it’s expensive to live in the Bay Area.

I went to Newark Memorial High School. I was part of the Puente Project, a program that helps educationally disadvantaged students — first-generation, low-income — enroll in four-year colleges and universities. My support system was my Puente counselor, Sonia Torres. I will always be grateful to Sonia — I describe her as my mom. She offered me emotional support and helped me apply to colleges. When she didn’t know the answers to my questions, she never said, ‘No.’ She always said ‘We’ll figure it out together.’

On the day after I graduated in 2012, President Obama announced DACA. A lot of people were happy, but it also excluded many folks. I think a lot of people were skeptical, too, because we were expected to give all of our information to the government. To this day, we’re wondering, what are they going to do with it?

My mom saw DACA as a way to have social mobility. Having a social security number means a lot to the family. It’s not just a way for the individual to bring themselves up; it’s a way to support everyone in their family.

I started at UC Santa Cruz in 2012. For my first year, the DREAM Act and DACA hadn’t been enacted yet, so I couldn’t apply for financial aid and I couldn’t work. I got some scholarships and had saved up money from a job I had in high school, so that helped cover some expenses, but I still had to come up with tuition and housing on my own. It was really difficult.

Santa Cruz held an orientation for undocumented students — there were about 30 of us. We got to bond and share our experiences. We didn’t have to explain what it meant to be undocumented. We just knew.

By the end of my first year of school, the DREAM Act and DACA had been enacted, and I was like, ‘OK, my tuition is paid, I have money for rent.’ So, it was just food I had to worry about. I went to food pantries. Any event that had free food, I would go because that was where I would get my food for the day.

My first job was working at Mi Pueblo in Newark in the summer. Later, I applied to Undocumented Student Services at Santa Cruz to be a peer mentor. I wanted to give back to the program that had helped me, and provide support to future generations of students by sharing my experiences with them. I really enjoyed working with the students, building a community that I couldn’t find in other spaces.

Valeria with her mom and sister during graduation at UC Santa Cruz

Chavez-Ayala (center) with Newark High School counselor Sonia Torres (left) and Theresa Stone, an English teacher in the Puente Project, at the Chicanx Latinx Year End Ceremony at UC Santa Cruz. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Chavez-Ayala)

I graduated in 2017 and started working as an academic counselor and coordinator for Undocumented Student Services at Santa Cruz. Three months ago, I joined the staff at UC Berkeley as an academic counselor for the Undocumented Student Program.

I really value the holistic approach that Berkeley’s program has for undocumented students. We have a director, two psychologists, an academic counselor — all of whom listen to each other’s many perspectives on how to support our nearly 500 undocumented students. It’s important to me to have those thought partners, so we can work together to hear student voices and figure out what the best decision is in every situation.

One factor that led me to work in the field of higher education is the lack of representation of the immigrant community in higher education. For a very long time in California, we didn’t have access to higher education, and to this day, many are denied access to a variety of resources. It is important that we retain our students because their degrees are a source of empowerment to uplift their communities.

As an academic counselor, I can advocate for equity within the undocumented community. I feel conflicted because DACA doesn’t protect the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. My philosophy is, ‘What are we doing to help all undocumented students, regardless if they have DACA?’ UC has given a lot of support to DACA — I think it’s amazing. But I also think it’s important to think about how the students who don’t have DACA feel. How is uplifting DACA negating other stories of undocumented students? How do we put the needs of all undocumented students at the forefront? I want a solution that includes the entire undocumented community because we are all humans.

I think our students are feeling a lot of uncertainty right now. With DACA, it’s like, ‘We’re playing with you.’ It’s going away, it’s not going away. Today, on Nov. 12, UC lawyers are going before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that the Trump administration unlawfully rescinded DACA. We’re all wondering, ‘What’s going to be said during the oral arguments?’

The Undocumented Student Program is planning a ‘Know Your Rights’ workshop in collaboration with the student organization, RISE and the East Bay Community Law Center. And we’re holding a DACA clinic, where the campus community can renew their DACA applications.

The undocumented community is feeling a lot of uncertainty — that’s what our students have to experience on the day-to-day. We’re taking it moment by moment. We’re not going to wait for things to happen; we’re going to make things happen.”

Related Berkeley News content: