SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - Giving a special group of students a piece of the American dream. At 2.4 million, California has the highest number of undocumented immigrants in the country and leads the way in resources. But it's still falling behind when it comes to reaching students who are undocumented. NewsChannel 5's found out about a group of local educators being trained to help bridge the gap to college for these students.
Katiuska Pimentel carries a backpack and spends long hours at the U.C. Santa Cruz campus studying for midterms and finals. It's a typical life for most college students. But the path she took to get here is anything but typical.
"I'm undocumented and I'm not afraid to say that," Pimentel said.
Five years ago, she would have never been that open about her story.
"I felt like an outsider," Pimentel said.
Living in one of the most dangerous cities in Peru, Pimentel's parents agreed to let the then 15-year-old come to the U.S. and search for opportunities she would never see in her native country. She came on a tourist visa but when it expired, she stayed.
"I never met another undocumented student while I was in high school. I felt like I was a rare creature that no one wanted to talk to that couldn't disclose part of their identity because that was bad," Pimentel said.
Determined to succeed, Pimentel knew she needed help and that meant she needed to speak up.
"I realized if I wanted to go to college I need to tell them," Pimentel said.
Soon she was facing another roadblock.
"No one knows how to support undocumented students - even educators, administrators at my high school," Pimentel said.
"Not all the schools have all the resources available," Veronica Leon, director of the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services at Cabrillo College
For almost a decade, Leon has worked with students who live illegally on the Central Coast.
"So they see themselves graduating from high school and life kind of stops there because they see that there is no opportunity for them to go on to school," Leon said.
Leon said there isn't a lack of help; it's a lack of information.
"It's a matter of getting informed," Leon said.
That's where the nonprofit Educators for Fair Consideration (aka E4FC) comes in - it supports undocumented students in California.
Teachers become the students during one-day training forums, learning about resources available to undocumented students like state aid, private scholarships and fee waivers, all to meet a growing need.
"It wasn't like that before and this is obviously coming, it's a result of all the effort that different people across the nation, representatives, and the organizations of our students, our dreamers, um, have taken upon themselves to say okay we need these services," Leon said.
Pimentel said E4FC was essentially the driving force that pushed her to go after her dreams at U.C. Santa Cruz.
"They also taught me that sometimes you're going to have to advocate for yourself and for your rights. I think they also inspire me that I can one day attend a four-year university," Pimentel said.
Now she's helping other undocumented high school students go after their own piece of the American dream. That's something Leon said she's seeing more of.
"They're coming out of the shadows and saying 'OK, there is an opportunity for me to go to college and I'm going to do it,'" Leon said.
But she said there's still a bigger unanswered question for students like Pimentel. Although she wants to become a lawyer one day, she still doesn't have a Social Security number.
"What happens once they're done? Right? They're getting a degree but if they're not able to get a job, what's happening to these students, right? That's where immigration reform needs to come in. That's why it so needed," Leon said.
Until then Pimentel said she'll study hard and maybe one day she can become part of the change.
"I believe that we can all be part of this dream," Pimentel said.
Pimentel said the nonprofit also helped her file for legal residency – a process that's been in the works for about a year.