Daughter of undocumented immigrants finds her own American dream at SIPA

Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017 | December 10, 2016

Fleeing persecution by navigating through desert landscapes. Leaving Guatemala for promises in El Norte (the North). Man and woman, in love, finding their way to California, in search of the American Dream.

This is not just the story of any undocumented immigrants, but the one of Ashley Portillo’s parents in particular.

Daughter of Guatemalan immigrants

“I am interested in talking to you about my struggle,” Portillo told me. 27, hailing from Santa Ana, CA, she came to study Human Rights & Humanitarian Policy at SIPA after working with the Peace Corps in Philippines. This experience strengthened her ambition to pursue a career in development. Her parents are immigrants from Guatemala who after coming to the US were undocumented for some time.

“They really are the reason I do what I do,” she proceeded to tell me. Their dream to offer their children access to education came true as Portillo and her brother got accepted into college. Her parents only received a high school education and they worked very hard to ensure that their son and daughter grew into competitive college applicants. “My parents always nurtured us. Anything we needed for school, they made sure we had it.”

Harvard was too expensive

All seemed well until Portillo began pondering her college list. She had always wanted to attend an Ivy League school because she believed it to be the dream for immigrant parents. As a freshman in high school she communicated her intentions to her mother. “I want go to Harvard,” she told her. Her mother’s response was “honey, we don’t have the money for that school.” “That’s when I started thinking that we don’t have money.” It made her angry because her dream had been shattered.

As a result, Portillo ended up attending University of California, San Diego where she received free tuition to study International Relations and Latin American studies. Her dream to be part of the Ivy League eventually materialized when she got accepted into SIPA, which made her parents very proud. One thing, though, clouded her happiness. “When I got in I was very excited,” she recalls. “Then a week later I got an email that said: here’s your financial award – loan, loan, loan, work study. They should not be calling it financial award. It’s not about winning anything.”

Accepted into SIPA, but with limited financial support

With no monetary support from her parents and no funding from our school, Portillo has had a hard time meeting her financial obligations. Out of the 100 scholarships she applied for to fund her first-year studies, she received only one, so she has had to rely on loans and a minimum wage work-study job to pull through. This year she managed to get scholarships from Univision and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, as well as a Research Assistant position on campus. She also works for a non-profit in Brooklyn and does an unpaid internship at the UN. That’s 40 hours of work in total on top of her 4 classes. Although her schedule doesn’t allow for much free time, she says it’s doable because it is temporary until she graduates.

Loves the path she has chosen

Her voice shaking, Portillo tells me that the career she chose is not a lucrative one, but that she loves everything about it and enjoys being part of a selective and competitive group of students. “What I am most proud of is that I feel I am doing it all. Doing everything that I came in to try to do. Just getting into SIPA was a big deal for me. Seeing my parents and my brother so proud of me. I love going to school, I love learning.” She has one regret, though: she wishes she could dedicate more time to her studies and get A-pluses on her papers because she considers writing to be her strength.

No resentment toward the hand she was dealt

“Nobody chooses the family we are born into,” she said, making it clear that she does not resent her situation. But she remembers being put on the spotlight when she participated in the Diversity workshop last year, a workshop meant to raise awareness about the diversity of backgrounds in our institution. Students were asked whether their parents were college educated. Portillo was the only person to step forward, indicating that her parents had not attended college. “That was a group of random SIPA students and I was the only person stepping forward. I am definitely proud that my parents’ hard work and dedication to me was being highlighted in that moment, so I wasn’t embarrassed. I just felt different,” she recalls.

Portillo shared her story with the hope that it will raise awareness about the financial challenges students face when they join our school without any support to cover their expenses.  “There are a lot of students who really want to be here,” although they acknowledge the difficulties they will encounter. Despite their struggle, they will succeed in their careers “because of their hard work.”