Cyndi Bendezu-Palomino: Standing up to be counted
Published in Commencement
For Cyndi Bendezu-Palomino, who received her master’s degree this spring in Higher and Post-Secondary Education, growing up was a process of realizingjust what it meant to be “undocumented.”
As a four-year-old arriving in the United States from Peru, Bendezu-Palomino – who is now a permanent resident -- saw her mother detained by the police at the Mexico-U.S. border. As a fourth grader in Los Angeles, she lived in fear when California passed Proposition 187, which, had it not been overturned by legal challenge, would have barred undocumented immigrants from using any publicly funded institutions, including schools and hospitals. As one of a handful of honors students at her high school in the South Gate area of Los Angeles, Bendezu-Palomino had her heart set on attending UCLA. Her GPA and community service activities made her eligible for scholarships – but without a social security number, she couldn’t receive them.
Bendezu-Palomino says she was blessed with a family that was determined to see her succeed, and all her relatives pitched in to help her out. But she also showed exceptional fortitude. She went to community college and worked two jobs -- including one caring for an Alzheimer’s patient – until she had enough money to transfer to UCLA. She weathered other disappointments, such as having to turn down several job opportunities, including one with the RAND Corporation – again, because she lacked a social security number.
Along the way, Bendezu-Palomino met other undocumented students and soon became involved in efforts to pass the federal legislation known as the DREAM Act, which would grant a permanent path to citizenship to many undocumented immigrants who have graduated from U.S. schools. The Dreamers, as advocates of the bill call themselves, have not yet succeeded in their goal. But recently, thanks to their efforts, President Obama signed an order that makes many undocumented young people eligible for a two-year work authorization and a stay of deportation.
Bendezu-Palomino plans to work in Student Affairs at UCLA and, after obtaining her Ph.D., become a college professor and conduct research on undocumented students. She believes that the issue of access to higher education is “the key to winning equity and dignity in American society for Latinos and students from diverse backgrounds.” In the meantime, her work on the DREAM Act has given her new confidence.
“It was a big moment for us,” she says of President Obama’s executive order. “We weren’t afraid anymore.”