For one undocumented student in Chicago, graduation marks both hard work and years of uncertainty

Itzayanna didn’t even glance at the models of human intestinal systems stacked on bookshelves or the open-mouthed medical dummies on stretchers as she delivered a presentation about Down Syndrome, a final project in her health care class.

The presentation was one of the last hurdles separating Itzayanna and graduating from high school, enrolling in college, and, she hoped, one day becoming a pediatric nurse. But being able to focus had not only kept her from becoming distracted by the medical models — it had also propelled her to the top of her class as her ambitions were buffeted by political winds.

Like thousands of students finishing high school this year across the country, Itzayanna is undocumented, and she is graduating into one of the most supportive, and yet one of the most uncertain, times to be an immigrant student.

“At this point, the sky is the limit,” said Itzayanna. “I have a big heart, and no one can say or do anything to take that away from me.” (To protect her identity, Itzayanna asked Chalkbeat not to use her last name.)

When Itzayanna began ninth grade at North-Grand High School, President Barack Obama had recently created DACA, a program that allows some young undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits. She applied for and received DACA status, giving her the right to work legally on top of being able to receive state funds for college, a privilege Illinois lawmakers had extended to undocumented immigrants in 2011.

But over her four years in high school, she watched optimism fade after Donald Trump became president and began carrying out his campaign promises to ratchet up immigration enforcement. That effort has included trying multiple times to phase out the DACA program, though multiple courts have stalled the move. Efforts to create a federal DREAM Act that would give undocumented students access to federal financial aid, also a longtime aim for activists under the Obama administration, continued to hit a brick wall.

“There is a big sense of the fear, of the unknown,” said Arturo Fuentes, who was a counselor at Itzayanna’s school last year and now works at a high school in a heavily immigrant suburb northwest of Chicago. “A lot of our students go their whole lives not knowing they are undocumented. Then they realize ‘I’m about to graduate high school. … I need to get out of the shadows.’”

For Itzayanna, the journey out of the shadows came through her school’s Dreamers club. Named after the national movement to draw attention to undocumented students’ exclusion from work and federal financial aid after college, students in the club meet regularly to talk about current events, support each other, and even help sponsor a scholarship named after a mentor teacher’s deceased daughter.

The rise of the Dreamer movement, which took off in Chicago in 2008, normalized the reality of being openly undocumented. But as part of the Dreamer club, she still found herself explaining her status to the outside world.

“A lot of classmates ask me — do you have a work permit? How did you come here?” Itzayanna said. And when Trump became president, she said she told her friends: “If I get deported, it’s going to be OK. I don’t want you to cry for me. If it ever happened, I have to be ready and you have to be ready.”

Chicago Public Schools doesn’t track the immigration status of students, but many students come from immigrant families and among those many are undocumented. The district pays for English instruction for students who need it, but counselors — who are in short supply across the city — carry responsibility for helping undocumented students navigate their complex situations.

“There is a lot of support with the financial burden of paying for school,” Fuentes said. “But the social-emotional piece is lacking.”

At North-Grand, Principal Emily Feltes said she wants undocumented students to feel backed by a strong community. “I want to build a network of people they feel supported by,” she said.

For Itzayanna, those people have included Fuentes and teachers like Nana Bonsu, who has taught her in health care courses since ninth grade.

“I have seen her grow from a student that needs the attention and approval of an adult to a place of more independent thought,” Bonsu said, “She has a lot of respect for her classmates, and is highly opinionated, in the right manner.”

Itzayanna’s time in high school has also been marked by working hard, really hard, to excel in her courses. She interviewed for and landed a place in the career technical education medical track while taking a series of Advanced Placement classes and competing in contests for high school students who aspire to work in medicine.

“There was a day when I was going to school seven days a week: five days a week here [the high school], and on the weekends at my CNA [certified nursing assistant] school,” she said. “Getting up early, long hours.”

She is hoping that even as the status of immigrants like her under the Trump administration is precarious, her path will depart from her older sister’s. Her sister received DACA too close to her own graduation and wasn’t able to apply for financial aid, and their parents, a mechanic and a laundry worker, couldn’t pay for college. She dropped out.

Itzayanna will graduate this month knowing that she can afford at least the first two years of college. She secured her a scholarship to Arrupe, a two-year program at Loyola University that aims to graduate minority, low-income, and undocumented students without any debt. From there, she plans to become a pediatric nurse.

Through it all, Itzayanna plans to wear a bracelet with a monarch butterfly, long a symbol for migration despite all odds, that Fuentes gave her.  “It was to remind her that I needed her to fly, and I felt that she was more than prepared to fly,” he said.

“The school really has prepared me to be ready to go,” Itzayanna said. “They gave me my wings, and I’m ready to fly.”