Pero I can do it too

How I Paid For College As An Undocumented Student



Growing up low-income, having unstable housing, and being undocumented presented many hardships for my family. We are not the only ones, and this is the reality of many families who start from ground zero and are not given the tools to thrive. Survival and living paycheck to paycheck is the norm.


I want to share my story to give hope to that eldest daughter, who is trying to figure it out right now. I see you, I was you.


In the midst of confusion, it is important to stay hopeful and curious.


I did not allow my immigration status to say no to my dream life. The way I thought of higher education was a College degree equated to more opportunities. I dreamt of a stable home. I dreamt of more money because I noticed how living paycheck to paycheck stressed my parents and led to a tense home environment. I wanted things to be different for me, my future, and my sisters. I wanted safety.


To this day, I am still thankful my dad let me know during my Junior year in High School he could not help me with my College tuition. I was not expecting him to pay for my College, but it was the wake-up call I needed to find resources.


Do not underestimate the eldest daughter because they are resourceful!


In the fall of my Senior year in High School, I applied to as many Colleges as possible. I had no mind drama because I still did not know how being undocumented would affect me.


In the spring of my Senior year in High School, all students were filling out the FAFSA application. I needed help because I did not have a Social Security number, and my white counselor said that I couldn’t apply because “My parents did not pay taxes.”


I thank my parents for explaining that although they did not have social security numbers, they had always paid taxes with an ITIN number. When white counselors work in schools where all students are black and brown, they need extra training to understand our backgrounds. She failed me.


As the eldest daughter and immigrant from Guatemala, I do not take “No” for an answer, and I researched scholarships that did not require social security numbers. I went the extra step, and after submitting my scholarship applications, I emailed the organization’s CEO. I explained how being undocumented presented new challenges and how determined I was to go to College.


I am so proud of 17-year-old me. She did not give up and advocated for herself!


I earned three scholarships that helped me fully pay for my Bachelor’s degree in International Relations.

Graduation day in 2013

You do not tell an immigrant eldest daughter that she can’t. She has experienced her family moving countries and starting from zero.


Perseverance is in their blood.


You won’t be invited to many tables. I am not saying it is easy, but you do learn to create your table. 


I cannot tell you how often I asked myself, “Why me? Someone who is a citizen passes the opportunity to go to College, but I want to go, and I have to work harder to attend.” Our lives have a purpose, and we go through our journeys for a reason.


You will find your purpose!


I am now focusing on helping women of color build the life they never saw their family experience. I am helping the eldest daughters feel safe with money again and release shame about the choices they had to make while in survival mode and circumstances that were out of their control.


I am helping them rebuild their confidence with their money and feel empowered to use money as a tool to elevate their life, build financial wellness, and create generational wealth.


There are resources, scholarships, and organizations to help undocumented students; research your area. You are not alone, I promise!


I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter to receive money tips to build the life you never saw your family experience.


If you are or were an undocumented student, message me and let me know how it is going! I would love to connect with you.


If you know anyone who can benefit from this post, please share it with them.


Y siempre para adelante mi gente!


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Orlenda Cortez

Welcome to my corner on the internet! I’m obsessed with using money as a tool because it led me to pay off $30K in consumer debt in a year and a half, helped me save $20K in nine months to have my dream wedding in Costa Rica and is helping me build the life I never saw my family experience. Now I want to help others do the same!

Orlenda Cortez
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