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Justice for Undocumented Students at UNLV

“I’ll never forget one of the proudest moments of my high school career: the unanimous “Yes!” we received from the judges during our Marketing Shark Tank presentation as Sprout Cafe during the 11th grade.”

My team members and I were ecstatic- all of our hard work had paid off. Graduating from high school and moving on to college was a reality I’d thought was far beyond my reach, despite working so hard in high school to make it there. This was especially difficult being the first in my family to attend college and not having the financial stability to afford a college education.

After making it past several barriers with the help of community members and teachers, I made it into the Honors College at UNLV, set to study Hospitality Administration. It was because I thought I’d finally “made it” that I’ll never forget the dreadful, sinking feeling of being asked to register for classes during my college orientation and not knowing where to even start. What website do I use? How do I know which classes to take? How do I pay for my classes? As the years went by I would learn that as an undocumented student my journey through college would be a winding trek, full of ups, downs, stops and plenty of questions- many for which I couldn’t find answers.

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Social Issues

It was by asking these difficult questions and opening my eyes to the various social issues on our campus, that I decided to dedicate myself to creating social change in my community. As a Youth and Education Coordinator for UNLVolunteers I learned that while volunteerism is important, looking at the deeper issues is necessary. Consider the following scenario: you and your friends are walking along the river when you spot somebody drowning. One of your friends immediately goes to aid the drowning person, and you and the rest of your friends walk up the river in case there is anybody else drowning. Sure enough- there are a couple more people drowning in the river and you spot a bridge in the distance. As your friends aid the rest of the people in the river, you approach the bridge you see many people in the river- many more than you could help by yourself. You notice there is a hole in the bridge that people keep falling through.

In this case, the hole in the bridge can be seen as social justice issues in our community, because individuals will keep falling through if the hole is not repaired. Community service is important because without it, the drowning people would be lost. Community service however, only treats the symptoms of the deeper problem, without really getting to its roots and ending the problem. We need to always try to understand why people “fall through the holes” if they experience hunger and homelessness, drug addiction, domestic abuse, lack of education, or poverty. Without it, are we really solving the problems?

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Undocumented Student

As an undocumented student at UNLV, I face every day the lack of knowledge about, and resources and acceptance for students like me, who don’t qualify for federal financial aid and many forms of state financial aid, are afraid of “coming out” as undocumented, and live every day uncertain of how the political climate and anti-immigrant rhetoric will affect their lives in this country. Universities across the country have taken to creating resource centers for their undocumented students, which include resource coordinators, trainings for faculty and staff on how to help undocumented students, and scholarships undocumented or DACAmented students can apply to.

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Undocumented students at UNLV come from all nationalities, are in all colleges, and all need support that the university currently does not offer. Another UNLV student and East Tech Alumni, Hafid Acosta, and I are setting the groundwork for the Action Taskforce for Undocumented Student Success at UNLV, which aims to bring together undocumented students with community, faculty, and student allies to work alongside administration to ensure that undocumented students at UNLV receive a quality education at a university that values their presence on campus and maximizes their opportunities.

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Though the social issues in front of us may seem daunting, and the journey to making a change in our communities is a long and difficult one, anybody can be an activist, because everybody has a voice. Finding that voice may take time and a lot of courage, but when it is found, it can make the most magnificent things happen.

Mariana Paola Sarmiento-Hernández

Graduated from the class of 2012 in the Marketing & Hospitality Program.

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