Immigrant students speak out for justice during Ethics Week panel

“It was always a life hidden in the shadows for me and my family.”
On Wednesday morning, a panel of Marymount University students opened up to a near-full crowd in the Reinsch Auditorium about the various challenges they have faced on their pursuit of higher education. All born outside the U.S., the students shared their views and experiences on the topic of social justice for immigrants during a time of intense deportation and detention.
The panel was held during Marymount’s 2020 Ethics Week, which incorporates various talks, discussions, exhibits and events to highlight the importance of ethics in today’s world. John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, moderated the discussion on the first stop of his national tour of Catholic universities, where he is engaging in conversations of faith and activism with diverse students and community members.
“Today, immigrants across the country are being targeted with ugly and cruel treatment,” Gehring explained. “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.”
All of the Marymount students featured on the panel reflected on their journeys to the U.S. at a very young age, and the struggles they encountered after they arrived. Derman Amaya, who escaped gang violence in El Salvador, grew up without his parents and lived with his grandmother. He recalls not knowing how to communicate in English, in addition to having limited reading and writing ability in Spanish.
“I didn’t even really know my own language because I didn’t grow up in the best environment, but I was able to overcome these challenges and get here,” Amaya said. “Many institutions lock people like us out and have restrictions on scholarships, but Marymount offered me the resources I needed. I feel like they helped me fulfill what I was capable of doing.”
Sophomore sociology major Mirna, who requested her last name be withheld, remembers her father leaving El Salvador when she was just four years old. She didn’t see him again until she was 15. Since then, she has become the first one in her family to attend college.
“I had a really tough time applying to college. For a lot of students like us, we could be deported at any time,” Mirna said. “I’m not sure what would’ve happened if it wasn’t for that one high school counselor who inspired me. We need more people like that who can motivate young students like us to embrace who we are, in order to change the mindset.”
The third student on the panel, Veronica Olivera, discussed the struggles she faced in paying for higher education. Originally from Bolivia, the junior business major started at a Virginia community college and paid out-of-state tuition – as many undocumented students are deemed ineligible for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. She would later transfer to Marymount, and secured a scholarship from the Dream Project to go towards her academic expenses.
“To better advocate for young immigrants and their success, we need more scholarships that are available to Dreamers and DACA students,” Olivera said. “Education can change the world for us.”
The panelists also took time to describe their career aspirations, and how they hope to improve what they see as a flawed system. Mirna, who is currently minoring in law, hopes to become an immigration attorney someday and help others who are disadvantaged. Amaya, meanwhile, expressed a desire to return to his home country and reshape it for the better.
“A lot of immigrants use their experiences to help their own communities,” he explained. “That’s why I’m studying business, because I want to change the lives of people in my country. I don’t want them to go through the things that I went through.”