Published: June 4, 2010
Stories of hardship are easy to find among community college students, and the class of 2010 at Queensborough, in Queens, is no different.
More than a rite of passage, graduation offered a chance at a promising new beginning for most of them — but not all.
Gladys Veronica Juca was the student government president and earned a 3.6 grade point average. She is also an illegal immigrant, one of several such graduates who walked away into a future with uncertain job options and limited options of government aid to continue their schooling.
“Sometimes I ask myself, you have a diploma, now what?” said Ms. Juca, 20, her auburn hair cascading over her shiny black gown.
Queensborough Community College has about 15,000 students from 140 countries. The graduates on Friday — a multinational cast with surnames like Baptiste, Chang, Garzón, Kumar and Mohamed — speak 58 languages and include many who are the first in their family to receive a higher-education degree.
“We make a point not to ask about it, and we are proud of it,” said Dr. Martí, who came to New York City from Cuba alone in 1960, at age 18.
He estimated that 1,000 illegal immigrants are probably enrolled at Queensborough at any given time.
Ms. Juca, who came from Ecuador in 2001 and lives with her parents in East Elmhurst, Queens, said she knew of a dozen other students like her in her graduating class, though she said most kept that fact to themselves out of fear, shame or both.
Ms. Juca almost never made it this far.
“Kids kept telling me that undocumented people can’t go to college,” she said. But then a guidance counselor at Newtown High School in Queens, where she learned English, told her that the city’s university system did not consider an applicant’s legal status.
So Ms. Juca applied to Queensborough and enrolled in the electronic engineering program, which was where she met Cesar Avellaneda, an illegal immigrant from Colombia who later became best friends with Maximino López, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who studied computer engineering.
Among the speakers at the commencement ceremony, there was a lot of talk of hope and perseverance. State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky urged the graduates to “move forward and write history.” Senator Charles E. Schumer said, “Figure out what your dreams are now and go for them.”
Mr. Avellaneda, 27, later glanced at the big white tent where he, Ms. Juca and Mr. López had stood with the other graduates and said, “That’s where I leave my dreams.”
“It’s not that it’s all over for us,” he added. “It’s just that our path is hard.”
Mr. Schumer is chairman of a Senate subcommittee on immigration and holds considerable influence over the fate of a bill known as the Dream Act, which would confer legal status on illegal immigrant students who were brought to the United States as children.
The legislation has stalled in Congress. After his speech, although he acknowledged that passage of the legislation could help at least some of the people whom he had just addressed, Mr. Schumer declined to say whether he thought it might see any movement this election year.
“That’s what I don’t want, to mix that up with the graduation,” he said.
Ms. Juca, Mr. Avellaneda and Mr. López, 24, said that they could only hope. “Maybe Obama will do something,” Mr. López said.
Mr. López left the mountains of Oaxaca in 2002, crossing the desert into Arizona. After spending time in Santa Monica, Calif., he joined his brothers Álvaro and Gaspar in Corona, Queens. He enrolled at Newtown to finish high school, took some classes in computer technology at LaGuardia Community College and went on to manage an Internet cafe in Astoria called Forum, which he bought last month.
Mr. Avellaneda moved to Woodside, Queens, from Bogotá eight years ago on a tourist visa he has long overstayed. “Life is easier here,” he said, even though he worked three jobs at a time — assembling jewelry, cleaning tables at a restaurant and driving a delivery minivan — to save money to go to college.
Ms. Juca and her parents — Jorge Juca, 56, and Ruth Castro, 52 — also overstayed their visas. It was a deliberate decision made after Mr. Juca, who said he had a degree in business administration from a university in Ecuador, lost his job at a bank and could not find another one.
Ms. Juca qualified for in-state tuition, which is available in New York and nine other states to illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria. But since she did not qualify for financial aid, her entire family, here and in Ecuador, pitched in to help.
“There are people out there who have a lot of opportunities, but they don’t take advantage of them,” Mr. Juca said. “My daughter got where she got because she has never wasted any chance that has come her way.”