"I felt like a magnet was pulling me down and all I wanted to do was sleep and sleep," she said.
Sara, who considers going to Burger King or McDonald's a treat, has always worried about money. Her father barely earns enough for food and rent. "My parents can't afford the paper and pens I use," she said.
During her junior year after a full load of classes, practicing for the Los Angeles Marathon and a deluge of homework, she would scrub toilets and showers at the apartment complex into the night for pocket money.
All of that paid off when she received Berkeley's acceptance letter.
Even without knowing if and how much money Berkeley could offer, she had mailed off her registration form to meet the May deadline. It had been her dream to go to Berkeley since the eighth grade.
Not Enough Scholarship Money
Sara sent out at least 30 letters requesting scholarship forms. Unfortunately, almost all required U.S. residency. She has won four scholarships totaling $8,000. However. that won't cover even one semester at Berkeley.
Plan B was to get married to a U.S. citizen. But such plans fell through.
Her last chance to attend Berkeley after high school had rested with the unlikely possibility that the university would find a way to grant her a scholarship. That hasn't happened. Federal law bans public colleges from giving any financial benefits to illegal immigrants, said Richard Black, financial aid director.
With her hopes crushed, she has spent nights crying softly in bed, said her 16-year-old sister. Still, she continues to take summer courses at a community college. If Berkeley doesn't pan out, she says quietly, then she will transfer to a private university like Caltech. In a stronger voice, she said it might be better for her.
Some private schools, including Caltech, could offer admitted students scholarships, grants, loans and part-time jobs to meet their financial need, said David Levy, Caltech financial aid director.
It will be this "determination of a bulldog, unyielding to any pressure" that will allow her to succeed, wrote high school history teacher Brian Gibbs.
The teenager's struggle for a better life won't end after college. She worries about how she will find a job as an illegal immigrant. That issue will be solved if Berman's bill is enacted. If not, she hopes the U.S. government will make an exception for her and grant her legal status.
As she sat on the soiled couch she often sleeps on, she closed her eyes, took a long, deep breath and said: "I want to be optimistic and I really am. There's no other way."