Commentary

From Culmore to Harvard: A Dreamers Experience

By Umaar Ehsan

I can vividly remember the day I sat on the floor outside of an acute care unit in which my 52-year-old father was having emergency surgery. I watched a small team of paramedics bow their heads in anticipation and sorrow. Moments earlier, they had been tirelessly working on reviving my father after he developed asphyxiating blood clots in his lungs as a result of a head-on collision with a drunk driver. As I sat there, I attempted to bribe God with promises of good deeds in return for my father’s life. I slowly turned my head and saw the surgical team quietly leaving the care unit. They didn’t look my way, purposely avoiding eye contact. Even before I could compute the gravity of that moment, a sense of isolation and dread began to settle in. I would have to navigate a new map of the world, one that was stifling in its unnecessary complexity. I did my best to hold back the river of tears as I prepared to be told what I had already known.


To my siblings and me, he was more than a father—he was our lifeline. He came to the United States with the belief that one day the doors of opportunity would open for his children. But, when he passed away, our lives were on hold and at any moment we could have been uprooted from our home because our immigration status was compromised. It meant that we could not work or drive legally, and that higher education would only be a dream.
Unable to enroll in college, I educated myself by reading non-fiction literature at Woodrow Wilson Library and spoke to local leaders about issues impacting our community. Not having access to mainstream institutions of learning fostered a keen sense of creativity and resourcefulness — two characteristics that have influenced my work ethic and determination. The Obama administration passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order allowing people like myself to break out of the shackles of our uncertainty. DACA protects nearly 800,000 young people against deportation, but does not grant legal immigration status or a pathway to citizenship. I took advantage of this temporary executive order and my journey began with my enrollment in Northern Virginia Community College, where I earned an associate’s degree in Business Administration. Following community college, I attended Cornell University’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations (ILR), earning a bachelor’s degree in ILR in December of 2020.
The obstacles I faced taught me an important lesson, that my quest for freedom relied heavily on my ability to understand the world around me. As I walked around Falls Church and noticed day laborers at the local home improvement and convenience stores, I began to realize inequalities and injustices through our marginalized communities. I realized that my individual fate was connected to something greater than myself, and I felt that I needed to create equality and fairness for those without a voice. In order to effectively help others, I needed to continue to seek higher education because it was a purposeful and necessary vocation that gifted growth and opportunity.


After completing my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Harvard Graduate School where I am earning a Master’s of Education in Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology. However, attending graduate school as a DACA recipient presents itself with a unique set of challenges. For one, the cost of attendance is a barrier-to-entry. Now, this can be said about higher education as a whole, but in many states DACA recipients are considered international students incurring two, sometimes three times the costs of their “documented” counterparts. Fortunately, in Virginia, DACA recipients are able to receive domicile status. Even so, they (we) are not eligible to receive federal financial aid, federal loans, and federal work-study programs.


I was confronted by this obstacle after receiving my acceptance to graduate school—how was I going to be able to afford the projected $75,000 cost of attendance? I did what any millennial would do and went online to start a fundraiser: gofundme.com/F/Harvard-Dreamer, which has raised nearly 20 percent of the funds required to complete my degree. I am actively applying to scholarships and exploring other means for funding as I complete my first semester.


It’s important to note that I am an exception to the rule because most DACA recipients have not had the same opportunities or community of support as I’ve had, yet all DACA recipients have extraordinary untapped potential. America was founded by women and men like us, people who were dreamers with big ideas, and people who were unafraid to challenge the status quo. DACA is simply a stopgap measure requiring a permanent solution. I believe we are overdue in providing security for all dreamers who have lived under the shadows for far too long.