In 2013, Estefania Castro Vazquez was valedictorian at Smithfield-Selma high school, where she gave an upbeat speech urging her fellow graduates to set out fearlessly, and build a life on their own terms. But when she went to embrace her mother afterward, Estefania saw that she was crying. These weren’t tears of pride, but rather of sorrow: as an undocumented immigrant, Castro Vazquez lacked access to the scholarships and student loans she needed to gain an education and fulfill her potential.
Thanks to a combination of luck, hard work, and her family’s unwavering support, Castro Vazquez has so far proven her mother wrong: Now 22 years old, she’s a senior at North Carolina State University, where she’s double-majoring in plant biology and communication and has been selected for two prestigious honors programs. In her summers, Castro Vazquez volunteers in labs run by a coalition of corporate partners and research institutions to help map the blueberry genome, with the aim helping American farmers grow tastier and more marketable berries.
North Carolina’s $5.8 billion agricultural sector is already heavily dependent on foreign-born labor, with 59.2 percent of miscellaneous farm workers coming from overseas. Long term, Castro Vazquez wants to work as an agricultural-science communicator, helping to bridge the gap between farmers and another immigrant-powered sector of North Carolina’s economy: the science, technology, education, and math (STEM) workforce. More than a third of the STEM PhDs in the state are foreign-born, as are 17.5 percent of its STEM workers. “Agriculture is something that’s incredibly important, but that gets overshadowed a lot,” she says.
That Castro Vazquez has managed to secure an education, and start building a career for herself, is thanks in large part to her parents confidence in her and hard work. After bringing the family to the United States from Mexico when Castro Vazquez was very young, her mother worked in a succession of low-paying jobs — in a factory, and cleaning houses — before getting a better-paying office job. When Castro Vazquez graduated from high school, her mother handed over all her savings — including the proceeds from selling their home — to fund her first year of study. “They took a huge gamble — it was crazy,” Castro Vazquez says.
It’s hard to plan your career when you don’t know if you’ll be able to work in a year.
That motivated Castro Vazquez to work harder than ever, and she managed to secure a series of university-run merit scholarships, and a scholarship from an immigrant-focused organization called Golden Door, to fund the remaining three years of her studies. In 2012, she also gained protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which shields qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as young children from deportation and allows them to work legally. “I got it the moment I heard about it,” she says.
Castro Vazquez also worked as an editor and reporter for NCSU’s student newspaper, and she volunteers as a mentor for at-risk youth in a nearby community. She also worked as a calculus tutor, but had to give up that job after a paperwork mixup caused her DACA status to lapse. “I had to quit my job, and when I was driving around I was super paranoid,” she says.
The problem was resolved within a few weeks, but the episode was a harsh reminder for Castro Vazquez of the degree to which her future is dependent upon a program that could be suspended at any moment by the government. “So many things are up in the air,” she says. “It’s hard to plan your career when you don’t know if you’ll be able to work in a year.”
Because of that, Castro Vazquez says she’s going to look for temporary jobs when she graduates, so that she doesn’t get too invested in a long-term project that she might have to leave on short notice. In the end, Castro Vazquez says she might have to leave the country to find the stability she needs as she begins her career — something she feels would not only be a personal disappointment but also a loss for the country that raised and educated her. “Ultimately, that’s something I’m going to come to terms with,” she says. “I feel like I could do this country a great service, but at a certain point I have to put my own future first.”