From Mexico to Oakland to UC Berkeley Graduate

Karely Maribel Ordaz Salto

By Karely Maribel Ordaz Salto At the age of 21, I was the first in my family to ever attend and graduate from a university, receiving my Bachelor of Arts Degree in American Studies with an emphasis in Environment, Policy and Public Health from UC Berkeley. I was born in the small fishing and farming town of La Palma, Michoacán, a state located in central Mexico. My father was a laborer with an eighth-grade education while my mother was a farmer’s daughter with a sixth-grade education. In the fall of 1995, my father, pregnant mother and I underwent the most important journey of our life: we sought a new beginning in the “Land of Opportunity.” We traveled from La Palma to Tijuana to Oakland, each town giving us a different chance at starting a new life. My parents left everything they knew behind to give my sister and me an opportunity to get an education. I entered American Indian Public High School (AIPHS) in 2005, a school with zero tolerance for excuses. Founder and Principal  Dr. Ben Chavis always told us that we were capable of not only going to college but also getting out of Oakland. He always reminded me that I was not the same as other students because I was an illegal. Dr. Chavis told me that if I followed his method of education and obeyed all his rules, he would take care of me. As years passed, I began to understand his method and goal for us. The push that Dr. Chavis and the AIPHS staff gave students fit us all in the framework of a bigger picture: college and a future beyond Oakland. At AIPHS, I was given the opportunity to take AP courses at no cost, attend a community college throughout high school for free, and meet some of the most dedicated teachers I have ever met. With the support of people like Dr. Chavis, I graduated from AIPHS with a 4.3 GPA and acceptance letters to UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Riverside, University of the Pacific, and others. I decided to attend UC Berkeley, but as an illegal I could not qualify for financial aid. Dr. Chavis and the American Indian Model Schools Foundation covered my whole tuition cost, and I graduated from UC Berkeley in only three years. Although many challenges stood in my way, none however, stopped me. My college experience taught me that my ethnicity and background would never define what I did in life. With President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program the things I can achieve have reached new heights. DACA has given people like me who arrived to the U.S. as young children, the opportunity to get work permits. Now, with an undergraduate degree and the opportunity to legally work in the United States, I am an Administrative Assistant at American Indian Model Schools. Most importantly, I own a tutoring business called Golden Eagles, providing tutoring and homework assistance to children from all backgrounds and ages. Through hard work, I have made my family’s journey to the United States even more meaningful. Although I never forget my struggles, I am not defined by them. I share my story with illegal students to allow them to see that they, too. can attend a great university, make their families proud and above all, do something extraordinary with their lives.
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