Edna Osuna likes to take charge.
At a meeting during her graduate school orientation at the University of Arizona she deftly maneuvers past another strong personality in the group and suggests other ways to handle an assignment.
They will read the case study. They will meet tomorrow. They will each have their take on the material. Everyone nods and the group disperses.
Later, she talks about the other student who tried to take control of the group. As a finance major at the Eller College of Management she grew accustomed to dealing with these millennial Master of the Universe types, she says. She will not be intimidated.
If it feels like she has something to prove that’s because — as she sees it — she does.
Osuna, 27, is an undocumented student. She was brought to Tucson when she was 8 years old and had to help support her family since she was 17. She has fought for every opportunity that has come her way.
Her parents are back in Sinaloa. Her father was deported and her mother, who was later diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, left to join him after she started having memory problems and could no longer work.
As a teenager Osuna looked out for her brothers, then 15 and 12. She’s worked at a factory, sold Avon products, cleaned offices and taken care of children.
But while her struggles have made her strong, Osuna says, she’s never been interested in using them to her advantage. Even as she was having trouble paying for her undergraduate education she was never clear about her circumstances with school officials.
“Eller really doesn’t know about this. I didn’t want to come to them with a sob story,” she says.
“To me this is just life. It happens. I’m not here for someone to feel sorry for me. I’m here because I know what I want to accomplish. I know I want an education. I know I want better.”
Had to raise $48,000
For undocumented students such as Osuna, who received her bachelor of science degree in business administration in May, graduating from college means defying the odds.
Even qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — which gives young immigrants relief from deportation and the opportunity to work legally — they still face an uphill battle, said Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“We’re talking about a population who’s excluded from financial aid and in most parts of the country don’t have access to in-state tuition. That alone means they need extra help to get to college, to persist and to graduate,” he said. “We’re also talking about a population that carries a great stigma in being undocumented.”
In May, the Arizona Board of Regents voted unanimously to allow DACA recipients who met residency requirements to pay in-state tuition. The move came too late to help Edna with her undergraduate degree, for which she had to raise $48,000.
“When I said I was going to Eller a lot of people were shocked, my counselors, my teachers, because it was, ‘Are you aware that you have to pay $16,000 a semester?’ And, yeah, I was aware and I had a plan,” Osuna said.
Her plan was nothing if not ambitious. She would raise $64,000 for two years of out-of-state tuition at Eller, double-majoring in finance and business economics. Then she would graduate. She enjoyed business economics more than finance, but the latter was more of a marketing hook as she set out to find supporters, she said.
She applied for every scholarship available and sought private backers among contacts she had made through the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Pima County Interfaith Council. She wrote letters to families she had baby-sat for, and they in turn reached out to their friends.
She got help from groups including the Arizona Community Foundation, Chicanos por la Causa and Fundación México.
She had enough for her first year and enrolled in fall 2013.
“One thing I was not compromising on was taking one class a semester because I couldn’t afford it,” she said. Her first semester, Osuna enrolled in 19 credits — all while working 35 hours a week.
But even with work and financial help, it was a struggle to come up with the money to pay. Eventually things got complicated and she was unable to enroll for her third semester because she owed $4,000.
She raised what she owed and was not ready to give up on her plan of graduating in two years.
“I went to my counselors and said I wanted to finish everything in one semester. I dropped economics, I’m not getting a double major anymore, just finance. That was the compromise; I had to be flexible,” Osuna said.
She graduated with a 3.5 overall GPA. All things being equal, she is sure she would have had a 4.0.
“I’m not embarrassed to say it was a 3.5, given the circumstances,” she said.
Encouragement proves vital
Having a support network is generally important to being successful in college, but for undocumented students it is vital, experts said. Not only do they need help finding financial opportunities to pay for tuition, but they need encouragement to face the unknown.
“Universities have all these services for low-income students, for first generation college students. Federal TRIO programs were established to help level the playing field, but unfortunately for a lot of undocumented students, they can’t participate in many of these,” said Gonzales, the assistant professor at Harvard.
Being a first-generation college student and her uncommon life experience made entering Eller a shock, Osuna said.
“If you don’t know how to assimilate quickly into the environment, you get lost, you don’t make friends. It’s one of those things. ... I’m still struggling with it.”
Laura Ullrich, associate director of undergraduate programs at the Eller College of Management, was a pre-business adviser when she met Osuna and learned she was undocumented.
“I remember that when it came out I was like, ‘I really don’t know what that means,’ but OK, because it didn’t change how I wanted to work with her. She was a quality student that was doing all the right things and I wanted to see her achieve all of her academic ambitions,” Ullrich said.
While Osuna has only positive things to say about her advisors and teachers, she believes the university as a whole could be more inclusive.
But with only about 100 undocumented students registered in Arizona’s public universities, there are definite challenges for administrators.
“You’ve got places like California and Texas where a lot of undocumented students have gone through those public university systems and over the years this has forced administrators to really look at their practices,” Gonzales said.
Many obstacles to overcome
Many undocumented students have a version of Osuna’s story — but not all of them have her happy ending.
She is a living example of the monumental amount of effort it takes to be undocumented and graduate from college, let alone pursue postgraduate work, said Florencio Zaragoza, president of Fundación México, a Tucson group that gives scholarships to DACA students.
“You have to find private funds, have the grades to deserve those scholarships. You have to not only fight but also be an outstanding student,” he said. “A lot of them give up.”
About 65,000 undocumented children who have lived in the United States for five years or longer graduate from high school each year, says a study by the Immigration Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank.
Only 5 to 10 percent of them go to college.
Osuna wants to help change that. She’s starting by volunteering with the foundation to mentor other students.
“I cannot tell them, ‘Oh, this person will give you $1,000 here.’ I cannot pull money out of my pocket, either, but I can show strategy. Who to go to, how to approach it, how to navigate the UA system. If you don’t have that support you can do badly. You can be crushed.”
While she thinks it’s important to speak out and be politically active, the fact that she finished her undergraduate work and is now studying for her master’s degree makes the most powerful statement.
“Results give you a better foundation. Me graduating, that gives me a lot of credibility. That helps set the foundation, makes it harder for people to say no,” she said.
“Hopefully I’m leaving some kind of legacy at Eller for the next student.”