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By Marielle McGregor
For Juan Garcia, the question was never "should I go to college?" but rather "can I go to college?"
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, but raised and living in Dallas County, Juan was an undocumented student. He wasn't sure if college was an option.
That all changed when he met Lucia Johnson.
"I told Juan that he absolutely could go to college" says Lucia, the assistant director of admissions at Cedar Valley College. "House Bill 1403, or the Noriega Bill as it's commonly known, was created to help students like Juan achieve an education."
While Juan was used to working part time during high school, his workload tripled when he began college. As an undocumented student, Juan was not eligible for financial aid. So paying for college meant getting a job. Or … three jobs. He worked at McDonald's, Auto Zone and a corporate law firm called Walters, Balido and Crain while attending community college full time.
"It was definitely hard," remembers Juan. "I tried to squeeze in time to study whenever I could. Math especially was a struggle. I had to relearn a lot of the things I learned in high school."
Realizing how unprepared he was for college-level classes, Juan feared he would fail. But that fear drove him to push forward. He did not want to let his parents down. He was the first in his family to attend college.
"Honestly, at first I felt dumb because I was taking developmental math. But once I began meeting other students and hearing their stories, I realized we were all smart. Everyone has some type of weakness, and math was mine."
One of the students Juan met at Cedar Valley was Torrey Wilcox. Currently stationed in Korea with the U.S. Air Force, Torrey and Juan became close friends. Juan's parents pushed him to achieve his goals and get out of his comfort zone, but it was Torrey who convinced Juan to finally attend a student government meeting. The free pizza helped.
"I never really wanted to be involved in student activities," explains Juan. "It just wasn't something I was raised around. I grew up in Oak Cliff where that would not have been cool."
During his third semester in college, Juan ran for vice president of the Student Government Association (SGA) and pursued any opportunities to network and engage with other students, staff and community members.
"SGA gave me so much exposure around the campus and in the community," says Juan. "I had the opportunity to represent Cedar Valley College at local events. My whole life I hadn't really experienced interacting outside my bubble, so that was a first."
One community event Juan did not attend, however, was the
Mega March of 2006. One of many Mega Marches across the country, the Mega March in Dallas consisted of nearly a half-million Latino students and local residents walking to show their support of immigration reform. Juan Garcia was not one of them, however. He was in class.
"My professor asked me why I wasn't out marching with the other Latino students," recalls Juan. "I told him the march would be over tomorrow, but my education would not. For my life goals it was more important that I was in the classroom growing [academically] that day."
Networking was also important to Juan's life goals. His mother purchased him some nice paper so he could make his own business cards. He began dressing professionally too – purchasing a black suit jacket from a local thrift store. It was way too large, but Juan made it work.
"With nine kids at home … eight at the time … we never had a lavish life style," explains Juan. "We were always struggling financially, but we found ways to make it work. You just have to."
In Spring 2007, Juan Garcia graduated with an Associate in Arts from Cedar Valley College. The following fall Juan transferred to UNT in Denton.
"I knew I needed a bachelor's degree to get any sort of decent job," explains Juan, whose parents were also encouraging him to continue his studies. "Professors at UNT were a bit more demanding. Juniors and seniors take upper-level courses. There was a lot more research, writing and public speaking."
At UNT, Juan's classes centered on his major: sociology. He teamed up when he could with older students. Each classmate had experienced different life circumstances. Seeing their perspectives helped Juan mature.
"Sociology was a great major for me," recalls Juan. "I knew whatever pathway I followed, I would work with a diverse set of people — different races, religions, economic statuses — and I wanted a degree that would teach me how to deal with all different types of people."
Juan's major wasn't the only arena that exposed him to new ideas. He also joined
LULAC, an organization devoted to advancing the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health and civil rights of the Hispanic population in the U.S. He might not have attended Dallas' Mega March of 2006, but he was ready to stand up and make a difference in his community.
"LULAC allowed me to plug in with political issues that were important to me. We would go to the state capital to lobby, like when they tried to remove in-state tuition for undocumented students."
LULAC would also lead Juan to Washington, D.C., to hear President Obama, Sen. John McCain and Hillary Clinton speak. Juan enjoyed the history of the city, its museums and memorials. He even had the chance to personally meet Ms. Clinton.
Juan tried to return to Washington for an internship after completing his bachelor's degree. Despite his new status as a U.S. permanent resident, however, Juan was not officially a U.S. citizen. He could not gain government employment working in the nation's capital.
The state capital, however, was happy to have him. So Juan moved to Austin for a six-month, paid internship as a legislative aide. The position ended up being a great fit for Juan's passion for change.
"I love that environment," says Juan. "Every time I go to Austin, I stop by the Capitol. The big decisions that affect us all are made there. So playing even a small part in that change is gratifying."
After the internship Juan wanted to stay in Austin and work full time, but most of the jobs working for the state or the city — anything politically related — required a master's degree. So he headed back to Dallas.
Juan's parents advised him to take a break. For years he'd been working nonstop on his degrees and at numerous jobs — from Austin internships to Armani Exchange. They saw he was tired and did not want him to burn out.
"I think the break lasted a month, tops," laughs Juan. "Then I was back to job hunting."
Juan found full-time employment at the colleges of DCCCD —this time as a department assistant at Mountain View College. During the day he worked in the Upward Bound office; at night he went to graduate school at UNT Dallas. He was determined to get a master's degree.
"I received a great scholarship from UNT Dallas and finished my master's in educational leadership (M.Ed.) in a year. Now I work there!"
Today Juan is an admissions counselor at UNT Dallas. He walks students through the admissions process and does his best to make it easier for them.
"Being bilingual and in Dallas, there are a lot of first-generation students who are in the same place I was once in," explains Juan. "Sometimes I will meet with both the student and the parent. Often their biggest question is, 'How will I pay for school?'"
Juan understands their financial concerns, remembering how hard the financial struggles of poverty can be. Before Juan moved to Dallas as a young boy, there were times he begged on the street in Mexico. He has come a long way since then, however. He credits his supportive parents and caring academic mentors, and his own determination to succeed.
"I was always working, but all that hard work has paid off," says Juan, who believes aspiring to reach our life goals should be treated like a marathon, not a race. "Everyone has their own time that they are meant to reach their goal. There isn't really 'a finish line.' Every goal you have is going to be met eventually if you just keep at it."
Juan is currently finishing his second master’s degree and applying to law schools to gain the knowledge he needs to be most effective in his career. His goal is to one day work in Austin or Washington, D.C., in a position that is politically charged but behind-the-scenes.
*Photos courtesy of Juan Garcia. Email newsletter feature photo courtesy of
Payton Chung on Flickr.