Woman Smilling

DACA Recipient Breaks Down Barriers to Pave the Way to Success for All Immigrants

Gloria Montiel, Ph.D., doesn’t remember where she learned about Harvard University, but by the age of 12 she had her sights set on attending the school. Dedicated to academic success, Montiel did everything she could to get in, only to run into her biggest challenge: her immigration status. The road was rough, but her determination and perseverance took her to Harvard and beyond.

Earlier this summer, Congressman Lou Correa of Orange County was in Washington D.C. to give testimony in support of the American Dream and Promise Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, and Deferred Enforced Departure holders. During his testimony, he held up a photo of our own grant writer Gloria Montiel on the House Floor and shared her story. Congressman Correa used the opportunity to introduce the house to an example of one of the exemplary Dreamers in his district.

"I was able to break through the barriers and misconceptions undocumented students face," said Montiel. "But we have to continue to organize and educate others about pathways to success so that it becomes the norm for all undocumented students."

Despite being told, “Mexican girls don’t go to Harvard,” Montiel’s drive paved the road to her dream university. After graduating with her bachelor's degree in English and American Literature and Language and earning her teaching credential, Montiel was eligible to teach through the Harvard Undergraduate Teacher Education Program. She applied and was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but couldn’t afford the program. 

Montiel returned to California and went to work for one of her mentors at a nonprofit. A year later, her mentor encouraged her to apply for graduate school again and promised she would fundraise to help her pay the tuition.

“I got in but didn’t have the money. When I applied the following year, I was able to get a scholarship from the school and a grant from a nonprofit organization, which were an immense help,” said Montiel. “To fill the gap, my mentor helped me raise the rest of the money.”

They set up a crowd funding campaign, which caught the attention of local news and generated an overwhelming response. With her community standing behind her, women sold tamales to supplement her cost of tuition.

During graduate school, Montiel disclosed her undocumented status to her classmates to open the dialogue on the struggles undocumented immigrants face.

"A lot of my classmates were under the impression that undocumented students couldn’t attend college,” Montiel said. "It was important for me to humanize the issue and open their eyes to the issue.”

She became the first undocumented student to graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education master’s program in Learning and Teaching in 2011. Two years later, she became a DACA recipient.

“I’m lucky to live in a progressive state that has created pathways for undocumented youth to enter school and have employment opportunities,” she said. “There’s a lot of creative ways we can exist and thrive. The key is to be aware of advocacy and information.”

Her DACA status enabled her to work at Latino Health Access, which gave her a platform to work on issues of social justice, education, health, and community engagement.

Montiel helped open parent centers in middle schools, wrote the English-Language Arts curriculum for a summer academy in the area, and created a STEM-based after-school program to help Santa Ana students who were struggling in math. She also helped launch a neighborhood WiFi project to provide affordable internet access to low-income families in Santa Ana.

During her time at AltaMed, Montiel has been instrumental in our organization’s civic engagement initiatives. As a volunteer, she stresses that despite immigration status, young adults have opportunities to be civically engaged and make an impact in their community.

A recent graduate from Claremont Graduate University with a doctorate, she is the first undocumented student to be approved for a Ph.D. in the university's 94-year-old history. Montiel's dissertation focused on the identity and college experience of high-achieving undocumented students.

“I have experience navigating life prior to DACA,” said Montiel. “I’ve had no choice but to be resilient. As an advocate, my goal is to help immigrants, like myself, learn about pathways to achieve success.”