Using Personal Experience to Help Undocumented Students Contribute more to South Carolina

When Jennifer Gutierrez-Caldwell thought about whether she wanted to attend college, her mother framed the choice in stark terms. “She said to me ‘Do you want to clean toilets with me or get an education?’” she recalls. Gutierrez-Caldwell, the daughter of former undocumented immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, had grown up in rough South Central Los Angeles and frequently cleaned houses with her mother and four sisters. But she was lucky enough to attend a magnet high school and be accepted into the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which provides college funding to outstanding minority students with significant financial need. With that support, Gutierrez-Caldwell was able to attend Bucknell University and earn a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. “In the application essay, I talked about how cleaning houses shaped my work ethic and better equipped me to handle real-world situations in and out of the classroom,” she says.

Today, Gutierrez-Caldwell has dedicated her career to helping at-risk youth gain access to education. She works for Pendleton Place, a non-profit in Greenville that helps young adults achieve self-sufficiency. Before that, she was the director of diversity and inclusion at Wofford College, where she showed undocumented high school students how to get financial aid to go to college and apply to scholarship programs, such as the Golden Door. She believes immigration reform should make it possible for undocumented students to attend college and contribute to the economy. Currently, South Carolina has one of the most restrictive anti-illegal immigration laws in the country and forbids illegal immigrants from attending a public university or receiving financial aid. “There are so many undocumented students who have no education and no hope for the future,” says Gutierrez-Caldwell, now 27. “I meet students who are excelling in high school but are freaking out by junior year because they don’t know what to do about college because of their undocumented status. What are we doing for the next generation?”

I meet students who are excelling in high school but are freaking out by junior year because they don’t know what to do about college because of their undocumented status. What are we doing for the next generation?

Part of Gutierrez-Caldwell’s mission is expanding students’ exposure to diverse leaders who look like them, which is a challenge in many small cities and towns in South Carolina. She believes seeing African-American and Latino role models in her Los Angeles community shaped her mindset for success. “We were able to feel proud of where we’re from,” she says. “There are some amazing Latina leaders here, but they’re not in positions of power.” Gutierrez-Caldwell believes it’s time to increase the visibility of her community by championing Latinos who are citizens as well as those still living in the shadows. 

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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…