By most logical and statistical measures, Mission High School senior Jakob* shouldn't be a success story. Jakob is an undocumented student who lives with the daily threat of deportation. He is not allowed to legally work or drive in this country. He is separated from his family, and when he first landed at Mission High school in 2007, he didn't speak any English or know anyone at the school. So how did this kid wind up with acceptance letters from 13 colleges and gold medals from several citywide wrestling tournaments?
Jakob grew up in the small, rural town in Panama. As a child, he and his friends loved to climb the town's mango trees and sit in the branches, biting into the flesh of sweet fruit, dreaming about traveling to other countries they'd seen on TV. When Jakob turned 13, his mother went on a long visit to China, her homeland. During her absence, Jakob began helping his father run the family business: a neighborhood convenience store. No more climbing mango trees; Jakob got up at 6am, 7 days a week, to stand behind the small, stuffy store's cash register for 15 hours. One day, surrounded by boxes of rice, beans, sugar, and cigarettes, he saw his whole life laid out in front of him. "I realized that there was not a day when my parents didn't work. Their only time off was an hour of TV before bed, no talking. That would be my future," he said. So when his sister, who had come to the United States in 2004, allowed him to visit her, he jumped at the chance. In July of 2007, Jakob landed in San Francisco.
"Hanging out with my friends in the city, seeing a movie, this is a dream," Jakob told me last week over chicken sandwiches at Dolores Park Café near Mission High school. But it's a dream with an uncertain ending: Though accepted at UC Berkeley, Jakob has no idea how he'll pay for school. Undocumented students can legally go to colleges in the US, but they are not eligible for federal financial aid and most forms of state aid. That's partly why out of roughly 2 million undocumented minors in the US, only an estimated 20 percent enroll in college. (PDF)
I was at Mission High School, sitting in Amadis Velez's English class five months ago, when I first met Jakob. As in every other class Velez teaches for seniors, he was going over important deadlines for college applications and scholarship deadlines first. But before he got started, he had an announcement. "Eman got accepted to the San Francisco State University, everyone!" he said, pointing to a student near me who was wearing a blue hijab with silver stitching around the edges, while the class erupted into applause and who-hoo-ing. Then Velez spent 10 minutes talking to the class of 29 immigrants about the Meritus College Fund, a local scholarship fund that awards $12,000 college grants to low-income students from San Francisco, including undocumented students. "How many letters of recommendations do they need?" Jakob wondered. "Three of them," Velez said, and Eman clasped her face in panic. "Where am I going to get that?" Jakob looked upset.
"There was this classmate at school who always put down gay people. I walked up to him and said, 'I'm gay. If I win this match, will you stop disrespecting the gay community?'"
After the bell rang, Jakob and I walked down the hall, passing a security guard, Jose Urista, who doubles as a cross-country coach at Mission High. "Jose hooked me into sports," Jakob explained. "I used to be this really chubby kid, and Jose said that if I joined his team, I could lose some weight and learn English." Jakob, who used to weigh 180 pounds, lost a few pounds and his English improved. But he wanted to see more progress with his weight. "Jose told me wrestling is the best for losing weight in a short period of time," Jakob recalled. Four years later, Jakob is the school's wrestling star.
When Robert,* who used to volunteer as a coach assistant at Mission High, first saw Jakob walk into the gym, he thought, "'This kid won't last.'" But after two hours of wrestling Jakob, Robert started to change his mind. "What really stood out to me that day was this fire and determination. Despite his weight, complete lack of self-confidence, and emotional issues, he kept coming back and fighting and winning."
Jakob not only won the first spot at the school two months into training, he won one of the top spots in the city too: progress Robert hadn't seen before. "How was that possible?" I asked Jakob. "There was this classmate at school who always put down gay people. I walked up to him and said, 'I'm gay. If I win this match, will you stop disrespecting the gay community?'" It was the first time Jakob came out to anyone in public. He won the tournament: lauded as one of the best wrestlers in the city in front of classmates, his parents, and coaches.
Around the same time, Jakob, who lived with his older sister, started getting into conflicts with her. Jakob worked 16 hours a week as a bus boy in a restaurant, but he wanted to take Saturday's off, so he can go to wrestling tournaments. His older sister didn't support the idea. As conflicts became a daily presence, Jakob started spending less time at home.