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Special Series: Education Advocate Follows her Dream

  • "America's Next Leaders" is an Equal Voice News special series that highlights young people who are making a difference in their communities.

Adriana Aguilar spent much of high school wondering how she would be able to go to college. The prospects did not look promising. Her parents, undocumented immigrants, had little money for tuition, and because Adriana was also undocumented, she was not eligible for federal financial aid.

Adriana Aguilar. Photograph by Tim Matsui for Marguerite Casey Foundation/Equal Voice News

But, like many young organizers, Adriana is determined. “I was not going to let obstacles like being a first-generation student, low-income or minority deter me,” she says.

Higher education was key to improving her future, Adriana decided. Youth from immigrant families are far more likely than others to live in poverty, and Adriana was well aware that, on average, college graduates earn $20,000 more a year than those who do not pursue a degree.

She worked after school in her father’s jewelry repair shop to earn tuition for East Los Angeles Community College and joined the California DREAM Act campaign, an effort to secure better access to public education for thousands of immigrant students. By the time she’d turned 18, Adriana was organizing young people across Southern California.

The campaign was called “Light the Torch,” and, through it, immigrant students at more than 60 colleges and universities generated 12,000 calls to the governor and 12,405 online signatures. Adriana personally helped organize more than 73 student actions. “We need education more than anything,” she says of immigrant students. “It’s the key for people to empower themselves.”

Because of her work, in 2011 Adriana was invited to the historic ceremony at which California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills ensuring that the state’s 26,000 noncitizen students would be allowed to compete for financial aid.

Since then, Adriana has continued her advocacy work, speaking annually with more than 2,000 students, parents and counselors across the state to ensure that they understand the importance of a college education and the opportunities now available through the California DREAM Act.

“This is what I love to do, advocating for education and inspiring vision and ambition in other young people to improve their communities,” she says. “Education creates change, and it taught me to believe in social justice.”

Adriana recently transferred to California State University, Northridge, where she is using her award money to help fund her studies in urban planning. Her ultimate goal? Developing cities that better accommodate low-income communities of color.

From January through March, Equal Voice News is publishing a profile each Friday of a young person who contributes to his or her community. In 2012, these young people received a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, honors young people with this award. Southern California Families Alliance nominated Aguilar for the award. Tim Matsui shot the video.

2014 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper

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