SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Most high school graduates on the Central Coast are enjoying summer vacation before heading off to college, but one undocumented grad in Santa Maria is not taking any time off.
The soon-to-be UC Berkeley freshman doesn't qualify for certain scholarships, loans, and grants because of her legal status, so she will be spending time working and applying for other scholarships.
Like most incoming college freshmen, Jenifer Lopez is a bit nervous.
"I'm kind of scared," she said.
Unlike most freshmen, Lopez is waiting to adjust her status in the U.S.
"I came here at the age of 9, I started in third grade."
The 18-year-old remembers growing up in Mexico under a limited education system.
"I do remember teachers not being focused on the students, because you know, one: they don't get paid enough. Two: they don't have the resources that they need to be able to teach the students."
That's when her mother decided to try her luck in America, leaving her young daughter behind.
"We were separated for three years, and she didn't like that. She wanted us to be with her."
So in 2010, Lopez joined her mom in the land of opportunity.
"I've been able to visit universities, I've been able to do a lot of things that I don't think I would have been able to do in Mexico. If you go back to Mexico, there's less opportunities. You're not gonna find jobs, it's harder to raise your kids there."
Fast forward nine years later, and she's now graduated with honors and a 4.0 GPA from Santa Maria High School.
"I'm really grateful for all my English teachers because they really believed in me, and because of them believing in me I was able to push myself harder."
But she knows the struggle is just beginning. Although she qualifies for a work permit under her mother's U visa – a visa for victims of domestic violence – Lopez doesn't qualify for federal grants, certain loans and scholarships, and other programs like work-study.
She says UC Berkeley is funding a large chunk of her tuition through the California Dream Act, which provides state financial aid to eligible applicants, but is still coming up a few thousand dollars short. Lopez will spend this summer applying for more scholarships and working to save up for college, and to help at home.
"Keep pushing yourself regardless of the barriers that you encounter," she tells herself.
If all goes well with her family's U-visa application, the Mexican immigrant says she expects to obtain her green card in three years.
"That gives me hope because I know once I have citizenship, it's gonna be way easier to help people under the same circumstances." People in the immigration system like herself. She wants to become a lawyer.
"Advocating for immigrants, advocating for fair conditions for farm workers, advocating for education for the youth, especially youth of color."
Jenifer is just one of an estimated 65,000 undocumented students that graduate from U.S high schools each year.