The well-known symbol for undocumented students, or Dreamers, in California higher education is the butterfly. And for Southwestern College student Casandra Morales, the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon symbolizes the educational journey she has taken.
The first in her family to graduate high school, Morales never saw herself as a college student. Because she was undocumented, Morales’ high school counselor didn’t know that higher education was an option for her.
She persevered anyway and attended San Diego City College. For her first two years she did well, she said. But her insecurity and doubts began to affect her studies, dropping her GPA to a 1.0.
Looking for a new start, Morales transferred to Southwestern College in the fall of 2018 where she found endless support, opportunities and encouragement. Sandra Salazar, a clerical assistant in the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), encouraged her to apply for the financial and educational support offered by EOPS. Then in April 2019, the college’s Dreamer Center opened, offering Morales the next step in her educational transformation.
It was at the Dreamer Center that she met Project Specialist Alejandra Garcia and found her passion and her voice.
“I needed help personally and school-wise,” Morales said. “Alejandra was there to advise me. She understood what it meant to be undocumented. I saw that if she could make it, so could I. It gave me hope to finish my education.”
To show her gratitude and the impact of the Dreamer Center, Morales this week is participating in the advocacy activities of Undocumented Student Action Week. She and Garcia are joining trustees from the Southwestern College Governing Board in speaking with state and federal legislators to expand opportunities for undocumented students. Southwestern College is also hosting a series of workshops to bring awareness and support to students.
Morales wants to show her peers that Southwestern College has so many resources to create success and confidence. With encouragement and hard work, Morales boosted her GPA to a 4.0, helping her earn scholarships and more opportunities. She began an unpaid internship in the Dreamer Center, which then led to an opportunity for a paid internship with Immigrants Rising—a non-profit agency that helps undocumented people get an education and pursue careers.
Working with students is now her life’s calling, Morales said. In addition to working with students across the state for the Immigrants Rising project, Morales recently successfully applied to be a student wellness ambassador with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. As the student wellness ambassador at Southwestern College, she can help remove the stigma of depression and mental health illnesses, she said.
“I never saw myself being an ambassador,” Morales said. “I know what it is to have doubt. I’m still working on it. But I want to show students where I was and where I am now.”
A recent story in Inside Higher Ed shows that emotional well-being is college students’ biggest challenge this fall. Morales said she is excited about making presentations for her peers to give them a sense of hope during these times.
“I want to be a student mentor to other students,” Morales said. “I want them to have somebody to ask questions and show students the opportunities they have.”
Garcia from the Dreamer Center is proud of how far Morales has come in the last year.
“Casandra is the perfect example of how a student can succeed by taking advantage of every opportunity offered to them and making a better way for themselves,” Garcia said.