The end of DACA?

Just another hurdle

Published December 01 2017

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. My college cross-country coach would yell this phrase during practice, and I would repeat it to myself during races when the obstacles (hills, hurdles, fatigue) seemed insurmountable and the finish line unreachable. I have applied this mentality of resilience to all aspects of my life. When I think about reaching my dreams and helping others reach theirs, higher education is the race I run. I must surpass all its obstacles and reach the finish line.

The importance of obtaining a higher education was ingrained in me at a young age. My parents immigrated to this country from Mexico and sacrificed everything so that my sisters and I could have the best opportunities for our education, our careers and our future. The course I have chosen in science and the knowledge I have gained enable me to turn my drives, efforts and dreams and my parents’ sacrifice into something that will have a positive impact on the lives of others.

I am a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate. Graduation is on the horizon, and my family and I are getting ready to celebrate a longed-for achievement. It is an exciting time, but also a stressful one, as any Ph.D. recipient knows. During this last year, I get to juggle experiments, writing a thesis, looking for postdoctoral opportunities and applying for postdoctoral fellowships. This is when our time management, productivity and multitasking skills are put to the test. For those willing to pay this price, achieving the American dream is the reward. With the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, however, I am reminded that my ability to strive for the American dream is not my right; it is provisional and can be taken away from me at any time.

Being an undocumented student in this country has placed many hurdles in my path. At a young age, I knew that I wanted to become a pediatrician. As a Spanish speaker, I thought I could care for children in the Hispanic community in the best way possible by correctly identifying their needs and being a comfort to the parents, whom I would inform properly and accurately. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, I had done everything to get into college. I was accepted at prestigious schools, such as UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, and applied for every scholarship. However, unlike my equally qualified peers, my admission into these universities and academic excellence did not dictate whether I could attend. As an undocumented student, I was ineligible for financial aid. Unable to afford tuition, I did not spend my next fall semester at any of these universities. This left a deep wound in my heart and also my mom’s. I heard her quietly crying at night.

Arianna Celis Luna is flanked by her parents, Josefina Luna and Felix Celis, after receiving her B.S. from California State University, Bakersfield.courtesy of Arianna Celis Luna

Determined not to give up on my dream of becoming a doctor, I enrolled at a community college. I joined the cross-country team and became enamored of the sport. In running, my efforts in practice were validated and rewarded in competition. My coach believed in me and saw my potential in the sport and in academics. With my coach’s help, I earned a running scholarship to California State University, Bakersfield. It did not reach the academic standards I wanted for myself, nor was it the college of my dreams. However, this was my chance to continue my education, and I jumped at the opportunity. Able now to pay for tuition, I spent the next two years as a student-athlete. I became attracted to understanding the biochemical pathways that affect disease. I earned my B.S. in biochemistry, and this is how I jumped over the first hurdle.

At the end of my undergraduate career, I felt accomplished and was ready for the next step. I was ready for medical school, or so I thought. The reality that my options were strictly limited was quickly brought to my attention; without U.S. citizenship or a visa status, for which I was ineligible, I could not apply to medical school or even take the MCAT. Not giving up on my dream, I thought graduate school would be a good alternative. My lack of legal work authorization, however, also barred me from a Ph.D. program.

Constantly being denied access to an education and ability to contribute to society as I wanted was disheartening. With my parents’ sacrifices and my younger sisters in mind, I found one last option. Upon graduation, I enrolled in a master’s program at California State University, Los Angeles.

The world of research was rewarding. I worked on a biochemical pathway that affects a type of breast cancer that is resistant to chemotherapy. I learned that I could satisfy my desire to help people by understanding biochemical pathways that cause disease and figuring out how to target them. During this time, I also helped other undocumented students obtain a bachelor’s degree. As president of Students United to Reach Goals in Education, a student-founded and student-run school organization for undocumented students, I organized fundraisers for scholarships for these students. More importantly, I showed them that they too could continue their education and go to graduate school. It was possible. This is how I jumped the second hurtle.

Just as I completed my master’s degree, DACA went into effect. DACA provided legal work authorization to undocumented people who immigrated to this country as children and met certain criteria. With legal authorization to work, I pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Montana State University, studying an enzymatic pathway unique to pathogenic Gram-positive bacteria. Working in this field reminds me of my competitive running days. You have to work hard to stay ahead, but all that effort and dedication is validated and rewarded. My growth from a chemistry student into a scientist has allowed me to see that research is my real calling and how I will have an influence in the world. My mentors and the communities that have helped me throughout my academic career inspire me to generate the same impact.

Except, I now anticipate doing so as a researcher rather than a pediatrician.

Less than a year from graduation, another hurdle has been placed in my way. With the end of DACA and an expiration date set on my work permit, my future career suddenly is clouded and uncertain. I am saddened and afraid to be in this position again. At the same time, I am reminded that this hurdle is just that — another hurdle. Surrounded by people who believe in me, and always keeping my parents’ sacrifice in mind, I’m not sure how I will reach my goal, but I am sure that I will.

Arianna Celis Luna Arianna Celis Luna is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the chemistry and biochemistry department at Montana State University in Bozeman.