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Yesenia’s Humanity and Hunger for Education

By Stephen Barker
September 28, 2022

Yesenia Garcia is a OneGoal alum, first-generation college graduate, and advocate for undocumented students pursuing a postsecondary education, currently serving as Manager of Operations at OneGoal.

Yesenia Garcia remembers seeing OneGoal posters around her school and not giving the class much thought because college was not in her plan, “I knew that after high school, I wanted to work.” But some of Yesenia’s close friends were joining, and after some encouragement, she thought, “okay, maybe this will be fun,” changing her mind.

“I didn’t know that [decision] was going to change my whole life,” she said. Yesenia recalls the excitement she felt exploring her Mexican identity, defining her postsecondary aspirations, and eventually applying to colleges with guidance from her OneGoal Program Director, Sasha Fawaz. “Ms. Fawaz became almost a parent to me.”

Yesenia came to the United States with her family when she was just two years old. Although she always knew Mexico was her birthplace, it was not until she signed up for a driver’s education class in high school that Yesenia discovered she didn’t have a social security number. “I was just like, okay, I’m not going to worry about it. I don’t know the full extent of what that means, but I don’t have one.”

Yesenia Garcia (R) with other OneGoal Fellows at the 2017 Graduation Gala in Chicago.

Like many undocumented young people, the pathway into postsecondary education for Yesenia was challenging. According to Informed Immigrant, an online resource for undocumented families and individuals, every state has different policies for admissions and enrollment for undocumented students in public postsecondary institutions. Many private colleges and universities have their own rules. Furthermore, Pell Grants and other federal and state financial aid are unavailable to undocumented students.

“I remember going into the conference room and crying,” said Yesenia, “It was all my fears. All of them smacked me right in the face. It was so close to decision time, so I was like, ‘what am I supposed to do?’”

Yesenia eventually received a full ride to attend Harold Washington, part of City Colleges of Chicago. “On the first day, a professor said, ‘just because this is a community college doesn’t mean that you’re getting a bad education.’ Which was exactly what I went in there thinking.” said Yesenia. “But being there in that moment, I think that he solidified my hunger for education, and thought, ‘okay, I can roll with this.’” She received her Associate’s degree in 2019 and plans to pursue her Bachelor’s degree in 2023.

The experience of pursuing her dreams has changed Yesenia’s outlook, “I finally felt like I knew who I was and what I stood for.” She began taking direct action to speak out on behalf of other undocumented students, even providing testimony to the Illinois General Assembly at the state capital in Springfield, “it was so nice to be able to publicly voice over something that I myself was scared of, especially in a political climate where it’s not always safe to speak out.”

Even as an advocate, Yesenia explained that she still had complicated feelings about her status as an undocumented immigrant, “I was mad about it. But I started to understand that, hey, you’re not the only person that’s going through this.” Through her advocacy work, Yesenia found connections with other students who shared her status, eventually forming a social club on campus.

During her time at Harold Washington, Yesenia found comfort in reconnecting with her heritage: “I had a Latin American History professor who spoke so passionately about the issues that we’re facing. I did a presentation about the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the 1930s—learning about that and other things that happened in the past within our Hispanic community, I learned that we hold an important place in American history,” said Yesenia. “I also began to feel accepted in my place here.”

Yesenia rejoined the staff at OneGoal in March 2022 as Manager of Operations after serving as Program Innovations Coordinator before a short stint in social work. “It’s a full-circle moment because now I’m able to support staff as they support Fellows. I am able to give back in a way—after they supported me, I get to support them!”

As for her OneGoal class of ’18 cohort, Yesenia says they have stayed close in the years since graduation, “We went through a lot together,” explained Yesenia. “I have most of them on social media; we still have a group chat, we send messages here and there. Some people are finishing their degrees. Some are already in the workforce. It’s interesting to see where we are and where we all went.”

Yesenia said that it is her OneGoal Program Director that has made the most lasting impression, “Ms. Fawaz has been a blessing to all of us, and we all still love her and keep her around. Well…she keeps us around!” she said. “I want to say that I truly believe she made a big impact in all of our lives—even simple things, like keeping my email inbox under 15 messages. That’s something we were graded on, so now it’s a habit for me, and I never feel overwhelmed. It’s things like that which have helped me through my professional life.”

Yesenia posing for photos with former Program Director, Sasha Fawaz, OneGoal Co-Founder and Board Member, Jeff Nelson, and members of her OneGoal cohort.

Thinking about the future, Yesenia wants to continue to advocate for young people, “I see myself doing advising work for undocumented students.” Sharing what she has learned with the next generation is most important to Yesenia: “at the end of the day, we are human beings, and I hope that people can see that in me and in other people who are like me. Papers don’t determine how human you are.”

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