It all began my junior year of high school. I never really enjoyed school, except for history class (the reason I teach middle school history). Other than that I didn’t really have much aspirations for attending school, other than the amount of time mandated by the state of Texas.

However, by my senior year of high school most of my classmates were already talking about college and their future. It was by this time that I figured perhaps I could go to college but my focus was more about being able to work with my dad at his construction job.

Until one day a short Hispanic lady called for me to meet her at the college and career counseling office. When I entered the room, some other students were there and others were slowly arriving. Much like myself, there were other Hispanic students sitting around a rectangular table.

Once every one settled in, she proceeded to explain why we were all asked to join her in this room. All of us had one thing in common. We were considered undocumented immigrants. In addition, she wanted to discuss our educational options from here on out.

A Little Background

By 2001 Texas had passed House Bill 1403, also known as the Texas Dream Act. So as Juniors and Seniors in high school (2009), we were all qualified for HB 1403 benefits.

The Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was a piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate back in mid 2001. Unable to gain much support at the national level, the act never became law. States like Texas passed their own version of the act and it allowed undocumented students who 1.) Lived in Texas during the three years before graduating from high school or getting their GED. 2.) Lived in Texas prior to enrolling in a public University, and 3.) Signed an affidavit saying that they intended to apply for legal permanent residency status as soon as they were able. (Texas Dream Act Fact Sheet)

As expected, every single kid in that room fell under these qualifications. The state allowed us to receive the benefits of the law and to pay in-state tuition and receive TASFA (Texas Application for State Financial Aid) but not FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

In addition to TASFA, we were also able to apply through a private student loan lender. Given the fact that we had no credit or a way to establish it, a co-signor was necessary for processing the loan. Some really good church friends were kind enough to support me in this matter and became my co-signors and sponsors.

The Guilt

As thankful as I am for those good friends, the guilt of having placed that financial responsibility on them never left me as I went off to college. I could not help it but to be scared that if anything happened to me those good friends of mine would still have to bear the full load of the debt. Every day I was scared of being incapacitated or somehow run into immigration problems where I would be unable to pay back my loan, and thus hurting my dear friends.

So what do I do? I can’t legally work and my parents barely make ends meet…

Well I became a job scavenger. In addition, I was fortunate enough to receive some scholarships that were able to sustain me for a couple of semesters. Eventually, thanks to Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) executive order, many undocumented students who were just trying to do the right thing were able to legally work. 

In addition to the guilt, I also experienced shame. Shame in having people believe that all I wanted were government handouts, when all I ever desired was the opportunity to earn money and pay for an education. 

The Irony of It All

While some of the politicians and talking heads were arguing about how giving a kid (who did not ask to be brought to this country) amnesty, the IRS was okay with the idea of letting any capable human pay their share of taxes regardless of your legal status (any undocumented immigrant can apply to receive an ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number). 

At the same time, even though the state did not allow me to hold a job, they did grant me the ability to borrow money. Thanks to the care of loved ones and accidentally stumbling on personal finance wisdom, I was able to stop myself from borrowing more than $16,000.

While I am grateful for the opportunities that this country has granted me, I am also aware of the traps that dreams can cause. We are willing to chase the American dream without stopping to think about the financial consequences of our future. With a mix of luck and determination I was able to pay off over $15,000 of student loans and managed to graduate college with a teaching degree.

What if I hadn’t gotten so lucky, both by the turns and twists of life and public policy? That means I would be trapped in and unending cycle of debt, one that would have been unable to climb out of  because the very same government that allowed me to borrow it would have made it impossible to pay back. 

The Great News

The reality is that we all deal with some sort of obstacle. We can either let that define us forever and let it become a crutch, or you can figure out ways to overcome those adversities. Whatever your story is, and however many zeros there are next to your problem, today is the day you can do something about your “money situation.” 

If you don’t know where to start head over here. If an immigrant kid from a poor Mexican town can do it, so can any of you!

What obstacles keep you from paying your debts?