On any college campus, it wouldn't be hard to find students who say how hard they worked to get where they are or to stay there -- from the application process, tuition costs and keeping up with the workload.
On Feb. 12, in an auditorium on Marymount University campus in Arlington, a group of immigrant students did just that and then some, highlighting typical college student challenges but ones that were magnified by language barriers, financial constraints and immigration "obstacles" as one student put it.
Most in the panel also had to meet these challenges pretty much by themselves -- without the help of their parents. All of them also are coping with the ongoing threat of not knowing their future status in the U.S. since the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, still hangs in the balance awaiting the Supreme Court's decision to allow it to continue or not.
Marymount University currently has about 80 DACA students. The campus panel discussion, titled "Students Speak Out: Justice for Immigrants in an Era of Deportation," was part of the university's Ethics Week program. It was moderated by John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a Washington-based advocacy group.
In introducing the panelists to students and faculty members, Gehring said their stories are raw and serve to remind listeners that immigration is not an abstract issue but often one that involves faith and perseverance.
Marymount was the first stop for Faith in Public Life, which is hosting panel discussions at two other universities in coming weeks: Xavier University in Cincinnati and Cabrini University in Radnor, Pennsylvania. The Xavier discussion will focus on racial justice, and the Cabrini panel will examine the role of faith and values in the election and beyond.
At Marymount, Gehring said: "Today, immigrants across the country are being targeted with ugly and cruel treatment. We need to hear the personal stories of these young immigrants in order to change hearts and minds which will then lead to public policy change."
The panelists not only spoke of challenges they have overcome, and continually deal with, but they also spoke of their desire to give back.
Mirna, who declined to have her last name used, is a sophomore sociology major minoring in law who came to the United States from El Salvador when she was 15. Her father left the family to come to the United States for work when she was 4. Mirna wants to be an immigration attorney primarily because she has seen her family members remain in this country without documents for so many years out of their own fear and a lack of understanding of how the system works.
Derman Amaya, a freshman studying business, hopes to make things better in his home country of El Salvador and maybe even be president there someday. He said he doesn't "want anyone to experience what I did."
Veronica Olivera, a junior majoring in business, says she might have to go back to her home country of Bolivia and needs to "be ready for future," but in the meantime she has only been able to take on low-paying jobs without a work permit.
The two Salvadoran students spoke of the gang violence they escaped from in El Salvador.
When Amaya was 9, his father was killed by gang members, and not long after that he made the journey to the United States with smugglers and was placed in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.
"You don't want to spend your 10th birthday in jail," he said, but that's where he was. Now, looking back he simply says: "It was not the best circumstance" and he "didn't grow up in the best environment."
But he also said he overcame challenges to get where he is now, challenges that included not being able to read English or Spanish in seventh grade.
Olivera spoke with the same understated resilience saying: "My life so far has been complicated." Her mother left her when she was young and as she put it: "I've been raising myself ever since."
She said she was overcoming her fear of speaking in public to stress the needs immigrants face particularly with regard to resources in education, health and mental health.
Some of the challenges are somewhat typical. Mirna, for example had a hard time with the SAT.
But she also had a "really tough time applying to college. For a lot of students like us, we could be deported at any time," she added.
She told the Marymount audience that she might not have made it to where she was today if it hadn't been for the high school counselor who inspired her.
"We need more people like that who can motivate young students like us to embrace who we are, in order to change the mindset," she said.
No one needs to tell these students that mindsets against the immigrant community are still very prevalent. Olivera said, when she has spoken before about challenges she's faced, one person told her to "go back" to her home country.
"You have to know your audience, and I know you are family," she told the Marymount group.