Watch CBS News

South Bay college graduate overcomes obstacles, gives others educational opportunities

Naturalized citizen becomes 1st in her family to graduate from college at Santa Clara University
Naturalized citizen becomes 1st in her family to graduate from college at Santa Clara University 03:05

A graduate of the Class of 2024 has a lot to celebrate this Saturday at Santa Clara University's annual commencement, achieving her childhood goal of getting a college degree 16 years after she finished high school. 

Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca is the first in her family to receive a college education. Her journey required overcoming many challenges after she learned she was an undocumented student while applying to schools. 

"A lot of the reason why so many of our families immigrate to this country is to try to get an education," said Espinoza Salamanca, a double major in sociology and ethnic studies at SCU. "Something that for so many of our parents, they didn't even have that opportunity back in our home countries."

While preparing for college in her junior year of high school, Espinoza Salamanca called her mother for her social security number to complete the FAFSA application. Her mother told her she didn't have one because she was an undocumented child in the U.S. The shocking revelation would lead to more devastating news, at least based on what she was told then. 

"My 11th grade counselor who told me that people like me didn't go to college," she recalled to KPIX. 

Although she would graduate from North Hollywood High School in 2008 with a resume filled with activities and accolades to make her competitive for college admissions, she moved to the Bay Area frustrated that it appeared her educational path would come to an end much sooner than she planned. 

"It was very daunting to me to get up from my seat," she said about high school graduation. "I remember like not even wanting to get up because I felt like after I crossed that stage there's nothing for me."

Espinoza Salamanca would then realize what else would be out of reach for her at the time besides college, like getting a job or having a driver's license. But people around her looking out for a young woman with so much potential steered her toward community colleges, showing her how she could still get a higher education. The desire to return to Mexico remained though, especially after her parents had already self-deported. 

As member of the DREAMer generation, she wanted to make her parents proud. But when her father was diagnosed with cancer, she felt the need to go home. He died in 2011, but her mother urged her to keep going and a year later she would qualify for DACA. 

"I told them that I would stay to go to college, so it's more like a promise to my parents that, you know, their sacrifices weren't in vain," she said. "That at least one of us out of the 11 were able to achieve that dream."

The first of three generations, her parents, her siblings, and even her nieces and nephews, she did get to college and finish graduating with honors. Along the way, she created a database for scholarships to help undocumented students locally and then across the country. Her nonprofit DREAMers Roadmap helps 35,000 students find scholarships each year. Before she graduated, she also got married and had two children.  

"Voting I think was the first time where I felt that I finally belonged that I finally you know can call this place home," she said about participating in an election several years after becoming a naturalized citizen. 

Espinoza Salamanca educational journey isn't over yet. She now heads to Stanford as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar to get her master's in policy organization and leadership studies from the Graduate School of Education. SHe will continue her work with the nonprofit and hopes to one day run for elected office. 

While she may have planned to be a member of the Class of 2012, the experience she gained and the achievements that came with waiting to join the Class of 2024 allows her to reflect with pride on those once haunting words she heard from a high school counselor. 

"Having that 16-year gap gave me so much clarity on what it is exactly that I want and what I don't want," she said. "In a way I feel like, 'Yeah, she was right. People like me don't go to college. People like me thrive in college.'"

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.