From Central Florida to the White House, Seminole State College of Florida student Bernarda “Eli” Garcia, 24, a native of Mexico, is making her voice heard and representing fellow undocumented students and workers.
In June, she attended the White House Summit on Working Families, where she participated in discussions on worker’s rights and heard presentations from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, among others.
Garcia, a student in Seminole State’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scholarship program, says her own experiences led her to become an activist, advocating the rights of fellow DREAMers and participating in marches and rallies with Central Florida Jobs with Justice, an organization for workers’ rights.
"I had to learn a different language and figure out the culture,” says Garcia, who came to the United States when she was 11 years old. “I didn’t grow up with my parents in Mexico, so it was like living in a new family. It was very intense for me."
Now, as a college student and activist, Garcia has come a long way from being the school girl who once wanted to be "invisible."
"It wasn’t until sixth or seventh grade that I found out that I was undocumented," she says. "I thought, 'If I'm undocumented, I don’t want people to see me.' I became an invisible person. I hid myself from the world and had just one friend."
Garcia says that began to change when she was got involved at Hope CommUnity Center (HCC) of Apopka, which offers services and support for Central Florida’s immigrant community, and met other kids who were also undocumented.
"I found myself not trying to be invisible anymore," she says. "But I was still scared to tell that I was undocumented. By my senior year of high school, I discovered my talents and became more comfortable with my story."
Despite her newfound confidence, as her graduation from Apopka High School approached, Garcia says her excitement was overshadowed by yet another challenge.
"I was really excited, because my parents were proud of me, and I was about to get my diploma," she says. "But every dream was crashing. I heard my friends talking about college, but I wasn’t talking about anything like that, because I knew I couldn’t go to college. Inside, I was feeling very depressed."
Once again the HCC, which has partnered with Seminole State since 2003, provided a ray of hope and connected Garcia to the College’s International Student Office and an advisor who helped her through the admission process and told her about scholarships available through the Foundation for Seminole State College.
"Seminole State opened doors for me," says Garcia, who started at the College in 2009 before DACA was implemented. "I was so excited to go to college. Then I found out I had to pay out-of-state tuition. I was about to give up until I learned about a Foundation scholarship and that I didn’t need a Social Security number to apply."
With the scholarship she received from the Foundation, Garcia started taking one class at a time. She says her studies made her feel as if she was doing something that mattered. That attitude helped her gain confidence – enough to share her story in her speech class.
"One topic was to share an experience that changed my life," she says. "I shared that I was undocumented and that I felt privileged to be in the class and to be taking it with the rest of the students."
Her peers were so moved by her story, Garcia says, that they gave her $100 to help her continue her education. Through the DACA program, which started in Fall 2013, Garcia now has a full scholarship to attend Seminole State and is set to graduate with an Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree this fall. Through DirectConnect to UCF, she plans to transfer as a junior to the University of Central Florida and major in social work and study immigration law.
For Garcia, earning a college degree and starting a career, isn’t just about achieving personal goals. It’s about helping others.
She and others in the college’s DACA program give back by teaching and tutoring other students at HCC. They've also created a library with their textbooks, so students who need them can check out the books for free. Sharing resources also gives others at HCC a sneak peek at what they can expect to learn in college.
"We want to make it easier for the next students," Garcia says. "We love to contribute. This is our home. Seminole State gives us the opportunity to give something back to our community."