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For an illegal immigrant, getting into UCLA was the easy part

A San Pedro girl's undocumented status means no financial aid. Money is tight, classes are tough, and just getting to campus takes 2 1/2 hours.

February 02, 2009|Jason Song

Karina De La Cruz wakes up in the dark on her first day of classes at UCLA.

Pushing herself off a two-seat couch in the living room of a San Pedro apartment this September morning, she tries not to wake a brother sleeping in a twin bed next to her, or another dozing with his wife and baby daughter in the bedroom. De La Cruz dresses quickly and briefly considers taking her skateboard, then thinks of how her mother rolls her eyes whenever she rides it. She leaves it behind.

"I want to look right, I want to act right," she says later.

She hurries to the corner to catch the bus, clutching her last $5. She scans the road -- she can't be late, can't do anything that would hurt her chances of maintaining a B average. The first in her family to attend college, De La Cruz believes that a 3.0 is her way out of a crowded apartment and into a life with new opportunities.

De La Cruz faces fairy tale odds. She's an illegal immigrant, so she isn't eligible for most forms of state and federal financial aid. The University of California system, by policy, does not require applicants to disclose their citizenship status: Officials say their goal is to find the best students, not to enforce immigration law. UCLA officials say they aren't even sure how many undocumented students are on their campus.

The 18-year-old De La Cruz graduated barely in the top 20% of her San Pedro High class and is competing against students with much higher GPAs and test scores. She probably doesn't have enough money to finish her first year of classes.

She has almost no safety net: She doesn't know her father, and her mother, who lives across the street, didn't get up to wish her good luck. She met a few people during orientation but doesn't have anyone she would consider a friend.

UCLA officials acknowledge that some freshmen are admitted for reasons other than their grades and test scores, that some students come from dramatically different backgrounds than many of their peers but show academic promise. They say there are programs on campus to help these students But De La Cruz isn't aware of them.

"To have a chance to thrive here, students like that need an advocate," said Charles Alexander, UCLA's associate vice provost for student diversity.

When the bus pulls up at 6:34 a.m., De La Cruz is alone.

De La Cruz was born in Mexico. One of her first memories is running through the darkness to a van when she was 4 years old as her brother whispered to her to be quiet. They drove to San Pedro, where her mother had family. Her mother found work in a fish cannery, working seven days a week while the children went to school.

De La Cruz struggled in elementary school.

"I could never make sense of the language and only understood half the things people said," she wrote in her UCLA application essay. Things weren't better at home. The family lived in a small apartment with an aunt, and De La Cruz's mother seemed preoccupied with saving enough money to move out. She had little time to spend with her children, much less attend parent-teacher conferences. The two grew distant.

Eventually, De La Cruz wrote in her UCLA essay, she started looking to other people for guidance.

"I began to see my teachers as role models, something my mother could not become," she wrote.

San Diego State University was her dream school; she applied to six others, mostly UC and Cal State campuses. She never thought she'd get into UCLA, especially after San Diego State rejected her in February.

The average UCLA freshman boasted a 4.22 GPA in 10th and 11th grades, according to the most recent data posted by the school, and De La Cruz had a 3.365 at San Pedro High when she applied. She got a 21 out of a possible 36 on the ACT college admissions exam, ranking her in the 48th percentile in California. She scored 380 out of a possible 800 on an SAT subject test, putting her in the third percentile nationwide.

But on March 8, De La Cruz opened an e-mail from UCLA, and a congratulatory banner popped up. She screamed and asked a friend to look.

By her standards, UCLA would be expensive. It costs about $17,500 per year for fees, books, transportation and living expenses. She wanted to live in a dorm, which would add $7,500. She had a job at Wienerschnitzel, but it paid minimum wage.

Her friends urged her to think carefully. How about another school, like Cal State Long Beach? She'd been admitted and it would be cheaper and closer, they said, not mentioning that she would be less likely to fail there.

But De La Cruz slapped a Bruins sticker on her backpack, rejected the other schools and got a $10-an-hour job at the local Boys & Girls Club. She canceled her cellphone plan, dropped any ideas of going to prom and began applying for scholarships. She was rejected time and again.

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