Despite Challenges, Undocumented Youth Earns Her Degree While Giving Back to the Community

Shawnee Taveras, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who recently earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, has come to recognize that immigration reform — and a new attitude toward undocumented individuals — is vital. “When we came here, we didn’t come to steal; we came to get a better education,” she says.

Her parents brought their family to the United States when Taveras was 12. Upon arrival, it was difficult for her parents to find work. Mr. Taveras had to work 60 hours per week as a taxi driver “just to earn what an American citizen would earn in 40 hours,” Taveras said. Mrs. Taveras, who was formerly a manager and supervisor for a Verizon branch, took a customer service job at a party supplies store.

When she first arrived here, Taveras struggled to learn English, but in just a few years, she could read, write, and speak fluently. She made her way through school just as she learned to master the English language — steadily and successfully — and she graduated from high school with honors.

After graduation, though, Taveras hit a major hurdle. She still had not been approved as a legal permanent resident, and without documentation she couldn’t go on to college like the majority of her classmates. For three years, while most of her peers began working toward their bachelor’s degrees, Taveras and her family members were focused on obtaining green cards. “It was horrible,” Taveras recalls of that time. The prolonged wait, stressful in its own right, was intensified by a barrage of threats from neighbors who swore they would report the family to local authorities.

Despite these setbacks, Taveras pressed forward with her future plans. Knowing that she ultimately wanted to pursue a degree in psychology, she volunteered for an immigration-focused nonprofit in Providence, Rhode Island, where her family had moved in 2007. There she worked with the types of cases and clients she would like to be able to serve in the future, including families like hers who were unable to send their children to school.

It’s not fair for kids not to be able to go to school just because they don’t have a green card or citizenship. Everybody has a right to education.

When Taveras finally received her green card in 2011, she immediately enrolled in community college. After a year, she transferred to Roger Williams University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2016.

As a student, Taveras continued to help support her local economy in the United States through her tuition payments and spending on housing, books, and other day-to-day expenses. The Association of International Educators (NAFSA) estimated that the more than 1 million international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2015-2016 academic year contributed $32.8 billion to the economy and supported more than 400,000 jobs.

As proud as she is of this accomplishment and as much as she values the time she spent volunteering, Taveras knows she’d be much further along in her education if she had received status sooner. And some of Shawnee’s high school classmates had to wait even longer for their green cards. “It’s not fair for kids not to be able to go to school just because they don’t have a green card or citizenship,” Shawnee says, “Everybody has a right to education — it’s a right.” And yet, in spite of every threat she received and every time she was disheartened by a delay, Taveras speaks triumphantly about her status as a legal resident. “This is my country now,” she says, teeming with pride.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…