One of the core requirements for International Business majors at The University of Texas at Austin is to study abroad for at least one semester. But what about when the student is undocumented and may not be able to leave or re-enter the country?
To propel their careers into high gear, more undocumented students at UT are deciding to take the risk and study abroad. Thanks to an executive order introduced in 2012 known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), undocumented immigrants have the opportunity to temporarily leave the US for educational and humanitarian purposes. Even though DACA does not provide legal status, it has opened many doors for undocumented students. One of these doors is the possibility to study abroad and return to the United States with under a provision called advance parole.
Stephani Calderon, a senior International Business major, is the second undocumented student at UT to study abroad but the first to spend an entire semester of her education abroad. She is also the first undocumented UT student to travel to multiple countries during her semester abroad for a full international experience.
Her story begins in Mexico. After being brought to the US when she was three years old, Stephani and her family settled in Mount Pleasant, Texas. She had what she describes as a normal Texan-American experience in high school. She was a cheerleader and took AP classes. “My blood is Mexican, but my heart is American,” Stephani said.
But while her classmates were applying to universities across the country, her immigration and financial status made her feel like she didn’t have the same opportunities.
Stephani enrolled at the North East Texas Community College and graduated with an associate’s degree in Business Administration in May 2013. It was there she met other DACA students and discovered just how many options she had. These students inspired her and made her feel accepted. “They told me, ‘we don’t care where you come from, if you want to get an education and you’re passionate about your major we’re going to help you,’” said Stephani.
The support she received at North East Texas Community College empowered Stephani to apply and transfer to UT. With the support of the community college’s honors program, Stephani pursued the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, a highly selective scholarship for community college students seeking to complete their bachelor’s degrees at selective four-year colleges or universities. Stephani won the scholarship and was granted a full ride to attend UT.
But her immigration status was always in the back of her mind.
“My entire transition to UT was more like, ‘stop hiding things,’” she said. “’Be yourself and just keep going. Things are going to be okay. If something happens you’re just going to have to pick yourself back up and move on.’”
After meeting Manuel Ramirez, the first undocumented student at UT to study abroad, Stephani was determined to take her education global despite the risk that she might not be allowed back in the country.
In the spring of 2015, she left the United States for the first time since arriving as a child. She traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, where she spent a semester studying at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV). “I chose Brazil because it would be a good opportunity to learn a different language,” she described.
Her semester in Brazil enabled her to experience a variety of different cultures. Stephani traveled through Latin America and spent time in Argentina, Colombia, and Paraguay. She met many people who were proud of their backgrounds and identities. Through the Brazilian streets and favelas, Stephani rediscovered her own cultural heritage and came to terms with her own cultural identity. “There was a part of me that just really missed Mexico,” she said.“I’m always going to embrace my American values, but I also really want to embrace my Mexican traditions, too.”
During her study abroad, Stephani became close friends with people from all over the world, including Venezuela, Mexico, and Portugal. Her new international network of peers made her feel more comfortable with her immigration status and encouraged her to share her story with others. They’re still friends and frequently email and Skype to keep up with each other.
Even though Stephani’s advance parole document spelled out in big bold letters “this does not guarantee you entrance back into the United States,” and despite the fear she felt throughout her journey home and in line at the airport, she returned to the US without difficulty.
“I think it’s been the best decision of my undergraduate career,” Stephani said about her choice to spend a semester abroad.
Expanding her network and redefining her cultural identity were not the only lasting impacts of her semester abroad. Before her exchange in Brazil, she was part of the Hispanic Business Student Association and was involved in an investment team and another organization called InactUs. After returning, Stephani was so inspired she founded the International Business Students Association.
She continues to be involved with DACA events and students at UT. Last year, she held a student panel for the Hispanic Business Students Association. The panel, called “College 101,” sought to engage with high school students and inspire them to apply to college. The emphasis is to share their story and embrace their background. She explains:
“I don’t feel nervous about talking about [my immigration status] anymore. Its part of me and it’s going to continue to be part of me, and I feel like in a way it strengthens you because if life is so easy all the time and you have a barrier come to you then you don’t know how to approach it versus, if you’ve been living with so many challenges and another challenge comes up then it’s not different. It’s been the same thing.”
In May, Stephani will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in International Business and a minor in Finance. She will also graduate with a job at the prominent consulting firm Accenture.
This is not where Stephani’s story ends, but it does carry the promise of new beginnings for other undocumented students at UT Austin.