Born in Puebla, Mexico, Karmina was two years old when she crossed the United States-Mexico border at Tijuana with her parents. She has only known life here in the U.S. Her family settled in Los Angeles. Her father is a chef who worked his way up from a busboy.
Karmina graduated from John Marshall High School in 2007 and later attended Los Angeles City College (LACC). She is also undocumented: “I often get discouraged because I don’t have papers,” shared Karmina. Without documents, she cannot work legally in the United States. She observes that many employers seek employees with bachelor’s degrees, and she sees the competitive advantage of having a college degree.
It is her beloved younger sister, Susana—who is U.S. born—that keeps Karmina going. Since Karmina was 15 years old, she has volunteered at Susana’s after-school program, LA’s Best, and enrolled her sister in a performing arts program at Gabriella Charter School. “She’s a big influence on me. I want her to be somebody,” Karmina said.
Karmina recalls a conversation she had with Susana: “One day I told her, ‘You’re going to go to college.’ And Susana asked, ‘Why, when you’re just sitting here, you’re not doing anything?’” That’s when it hit Karmina. She was not doing anything, and the thought pushed her to register at LACC.
At LACC, Karmina faced many of the same challenges other community college students face—lack of counseling and limited knowledge of student support services. However, Karmina cited financial challenges stemming from her undocumented status and preventing her from accessing financial aid and scholarships as only complicating her ability to complete.
Karmina felt there are limited resources available to undocumented students on campus. “I know there are students other than myself who are in the same situation, but I don’t know who I would talk to about my status,” said Karmina. She had hoped to see an office where undocumented students could receive answers to their legal questions; information on grants, financial aid, and informal job opportunities; and where students could be updated on the status of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors).
Not being able to access financial aid and scholarship dollars as a result of her status, Karmina argues that books, supply fees, and transportation costs are much more of a barrier to completion.
“If I had papers, I could get financial aid and not have to worry about money,” she explained. She estimates that she paid between $600-800 per semester for tuition, school fees, books, school supplies and transportation. For example, Karmina shared that a program that allowed students registered for 12 or more units to have an unlimited public transit pass for $20 a semester is now $144 and too expensive. This is particularly problematic considering more than half of the students at LACC rely upon public transit to get to school, herself included. With regards to recouping textbook costs, Karmina shared: “They say they give you money back, but they give you $5 back on a $100 book.” Karmina often resorts to borrowing friends’ old textbooks to avoid the cost, if she can.
Karmina says. In the restaurant industry, Karmina’s father worked his way up from dishwasher to chef. The same upward mobility in labor should be extended to education.
Then-California Governor Jerry Brown signed the first part of the California DREAM Act in 2011, which allows undocumented college students limited access to financial assistance in the form of private scholarships. The second part of the DREAM Act was signed in a few months later, giving undocumented students access to state financial aid starting in the fall of 2013.
In the two years Karmina attended LACC, she met with a counselor only once, and she described that meeting unfavorably. The session lasted ten minutes, and she felt the counselor was generally uninterested. As if by rote, he showed Karmina the course requirements for art majors and then she felt, “pushed out of the office.” Ideally, Karmina would have liked an assigned counselor and full 30-minute sessions. Because she sought guidance in selecting specific courses and professors, she does not know the unit requirements for graduating with an associate degree or for transfer to a four-year university. Karmina struggled to use preparatory resources like writing or math labs. “I don’t like bothering people, so I won’t ask them for help,” she shared. For students like her who find it difficult to ask for help, a more personalized counseling experience would likely encourage use of those resources, and in the case of undocumented students, help combat feelings of hopelessness and isolation.