"There's been an update to your application," stated an email Menlo School senior Santy Mendoza received Dec. 14.
Standing behind him, his mom, sister and grandma clustered together as he logged into his student portal. Dad appeared in the room virtually, via FaceTime.
Heart racing, Santy said a silent prayer.
His mom told him, "It doesn't matter what happens. You've worked so hard."
He clicked the button.
"Congratulations," the email read.
In shock, Santy turned to his mom. "Oh," he said quietly. "I got in."
The tears, the joy and the complicated questions of what Santy's early Harvard admission means would follow in the minutes, days and weeks to come.
Santy, who will be a first-generation college student, is a current beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a policy enacted by the Obama administration in 2012 that gives people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children temporary legal status and protection from deportation. Recipients of this protection are expected to renew their applications every two years.
In September 2017, the Trump administration announced that DACA would end, but the decision is being challenged in the courts. In January 2018, a federal judge in California issued a national preliminary injunction that allows existing DACA recipients to renew their status. A federal appeals court upheld that injunction in November.
At this point, Santy doesn't know whether he will be permitted to renew his protected status when it expires, which is expected to happen in October of his sophomore year in college.
From Mexico to Menlo
Santy, short for Jose Santiago Mendoza Real, was born in a small town outside of Guadalajara, Mexico, where he lived until his family moved to Kansas. When he was around 9, his family moved to East Palo Alto.
He attended middle school at Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto. He recalls the support of Principal Amika Guillaume, and being told that a large percentage of kids in East Palo Alto don't graduate high school, and that about a quarter of the students at the school were homeless, or had to live in a shelter or with extended family.
An avid soccer player, Santy explained that the only reason he even heard about Menlo School, a private school in Atherton, was because of an after-school program, Citizen Schools, where he would wait out the gap of time between the end of school and the start of soccer practice and took an extracurricular course about local private school opportunities.
His mentor in that after-school program, Rene Jimenez, recalls that Santy, as a middle school student, had decided he wanted to apply to private high schools. At the time, Jimenez said, he was working in a teacher assistant-type role and all he had to offer Santy was an Independent School Entrance Exam test prep book. "You have three weeks good luck," he remembers saying. "That was all the resources I could give him. He came back after taking the test and that's when I found out how brilliant this kid was. He scored high on every section."
Around that time, Jimenez made a career switch into academic advising at Peninsula Bridge, a nonprofit that helps low-income students succeed in college preparatory high schools and four-year colleges. He brought Santy into the program before his freshman year at Menlo.
Once at Menlo, where he receives financial aid, Santy continued to excel academically, but adjusting to the world of private-school privilege wasn't always easy.
Differences aren't just academic socioeconomic differences manifest, for instance, in smaller things, like how people get to school, Jimenez explained. Whereas in East Palo Alto, families drive "everyday" vehicles or students walk to school, kids come to Menlo in luxury cars, he said.
"It can be intimidating to see that," Jimenez said. "Students come in and ... feel like they don't belong or like it's not for them."
While the academic expectations are higher at Menlo than in middle school in East Palo Alto, Santy said, so too are the opportunities to engage in learning.
The lack of funding in schools is a big reason kids in East Palo Alto may not be as engaged in school, he said. They lack art and music programs, and often have less-experienced teachers, he explained.
"If you're not in the right mindset, you get bored of it," he said.
Bridging two worlds
Santy lives close to Menlo Park's Facebook headquarters, and two years ago he had the opportunity to complete an internship there. It was a different world, full of free food, beautiful new buildings and "tech everywhere," he said. "It's crazy to think, just outside that little gate, kids are homeless."
A big reason he works so hard, he said, is "for the kids who weren't as lucky as me, who didn't have a supportive family and didn't have mentors in their life."
According to Santy's college counselor at Peninsula Bridge, Jenny Uribe, Santy is "a real leader amongst his peers a very humble leader, in fact. He's a student we lean on here in the program to bring the cohort together. He's inclusive and wants to make everyone feel included."
Santy's college counselor at Menlo School, Matt Mettille, added that Santy is very involved in student affairs as the student body vice president and an admissions tour guide and panelist. He also, somewhat bravely, Mettille reflected, volunteered to participate in a student panel in which students from underrepresented backgrounds shared their perspectives.
"He's worked super hard to get where he is," Mettille said. "I'm thrilled for him."
"He has a good attitude," Santy's mom said in Spanish. "He focuses on the things he thinks are important." She said the family is very excited, happy and nervous for Santy.
As he was growing up, Santy said, his family emphasized the importance of education. His older sister is attending Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont.
Santy explained one of the sayings he's learned from his father: "The pencil is lighter than the shovel." To him, it means that studying will lead to a less physically taxing job.
Santy said he'd always respected his father's work ethic, but it wasn't until he took a Spanish literature course at Menlo, and eagerly shared the short stories he read with his family, that he came to appreciate his father's intellectual side. Together, they analyzed and discussed the stories he brought home, and Santy was impressed by his dad's insights about the stories. That experience would form the basis of his college application essay.
Ever since he was a kid, Santy has wanted to be a lawyer in particular, an immigration lawyer.
Immigration is something he's paid a lot of attention to over the years as a DACA recipient. His own documentation through DACA will remain in effect until next year. After that, it's still unclear what's ahead.
As a DACA recipient, another huge consideration for him was how to pay for college, since he's not eligible for federal aid. Public California universities have resources dedicated to support DACA recipients and undocumented students, but outside of the state, mainly only well-resourced, selective private universities have the means to offer the amount of financial aid needed, Mettille said.
Santy said that the offer from Harvard means that his parents essentially won't have to pay anything out of pocket.
He said his parents remind him how lucky he is to have some form of legal status. For them, he explained, their lack of documentation has "always been very limiting in terms of jobs." It's also kept his parents afraid of getting into trouble, or contacting the police for help.
His mother said that the family emigrated from Mexico for their children because there weren't career or work opportunities where they were.
"We're still in shock," Santy's father said. "We are so proud of him."
An informed decision
Throughout his college application process, Santy worked closely with college counselor Uribe at Peninsula Bridge. For first-generation students, applying to college can be motivating or overwhelming – or both, she explained.
"Santy's really learned to value hard work from his parents," she said. "He really puts in his full effort into everything."
But despite his credentials, "There was that level of doubt of whether this was going to be possible," given how difficult it is to get into Harvard, she said.
"I think it is a question mark for every DACA student right now," she said. "For even a low-income, first-gen student to be thriving in this way is a huge accomplishment. To be a DACA student in the current political climate, and (to) continue to show up every day and put in full effort and not (allow) the negativity that surrounds DACA right now to get in the way of their performance speaks to the brilliancy of the student."
Jimenez said that Peninsula Bridge has contacted attorneys in Boston who work on immigration law to help Santy understand what risks he will take in moving to Massachusetts.
Uribe noted that she and Santy have talked about the reality that his family may not be able to visit him at school, and there's a big question of what will happen when his DACA status ends.
"Saying yes to Harvard means saying yes to all of those challenges," she said. "We know he's ready."