Karina De La Cruz wakes up in the dark on her first day of classes at UCLA.
Pushing herself off a two-seat couch in the living room of a San Pedro apartment this September morning, she tries not to wake a brother sleeping in a twin bed next to her, or another dozing with his wife and baby daughter in the bedroom. De La Cruz dresses quickly and briefly considers taking her skateboard, then thinks of how her mother rolls her eyes whenever she rides it. She leaves it behind.
“I want to look right, I want to act right,” she says later.
She hurries to the corner to catch the bus, clutching her last $5. She scans the road -- she can’t be late, can’t do anything that would hurt her chances of maintaining a B average. The first in her family to attend college, De La Cruz believes that a 3.0 is her way out of a crowded apartment and into a life with new opportunities.
De La Cruz faces fairy tale odds. She’s an illegal immigrant, so she isn’t eligible for most forms of state and federal financial aid. The University of California system, by policy, does not require applicants to disclose their citizenship status: Officials say their goal is to find the best students, not to enforce immigration law. UCLA officials say they aren’t even sure how many undocumented students are on their campus.
The 18-year-old De La Cruz graduated barely in the top 20% of her San Pedro High class and is competing against students with much higher GPAs and test scores. She probably doesn’t have enough money to finish her first year of classes.
She has almost no safety net: She doesn’t know her father, and her mother, who lives across the street, didn’t get up to wish her good luck. She met a few people during orientation but doesn’t have anyone she would consider a friend.
UCLA officials acknowledge that some freshmen are admitted for reasons other than their grades and test scores, that some students come from dramatically different backgrounds than many of their peers but show academic promise. They say there are programs on campus to help these students But De La Cruz isn’t aware of them.
“To have a chance to thrive here, students like that need an advocate,” said Charles Alexander, UCLA’s associate vice provost for student diversity.
When the bus pulls up at 6:34 a.m., De La Cruz is alone.
De La Cruz was born in Mexico. One of her first memories is running through the darkness to a van when she was 4 years old as her brother whispered to her to be quiet. They drove to San Pedro, where her mother had family. Her mother found work in a fish cannery, working seven days a week while the children went to school.
De La Cruz struggled in elementary school.
“I could never make sense of the language and only understood half the things people said,” she wrote in her UCLA application essay. Things weren’t better at home. The family lived in a small apartment with an aunt, and De La Cruz’s mother seemed preoccupied with saving enough money to move out. She had little time to spend with her children, much less attend parent-teacher conferences. The two grew distant.
Eventually, De La Cruz wrote in her UCLA essay, she started looking to other people for guidance.
“I began to see my teachers as role models, something my mother could not become,” she wrote.
San Diego State University was her dream school; she applied to six others, mostly UC and Cal State campuses. She never thought she’d get into UCLA, especially after San Diego State rejected her in February.
The average UCLA freshman boasted a 4.22 GPA in 10th and 11th grades, according to the most recent data posted by the school, and De La Cruz had a 3.365 at San Pedro High when she applied. She got a 21 out of a possible 36 on the ACT college admissions exam, ranking her in the 48th percentile in California. She scored 380 out of a possible 800 on an SAT subject test, putting her in the third percentile nationwide.
But on March 8, De La Cruz opened an e-mail from UCLA, and a congratulatory banner popped up. She screamed and asked a friend to look.
By her standards, UCLA would be expensive. It costs about $17,500 per year for fees, books, transportation and living expenses. She wanted to live in a dorm, which would add $7,500. She had a job at Wienerschnitzel, but it paid minimum wage.
Her friends urged her to think carefully. How about another school, like Cal State Long Beach? She’d been admitted and it would be cheaper and closer, they said, not mentioning that she would be less likely to fail there.
But De La Cruz slapped a Bruins sticker on her backpack, rejected the other schools and got a $10-an-hour job at the local Boys & Girls Club. She canceled her cellphone plan, dropped any ideas of going to prom and began applying for scholarships. She was rejected time and again.
“She needs to be more realistic,” her mother said after De La Cruz learned she had failed to qualify for two scholarships. Her mother also declined to help pay for her education but offered to buy her a prom dress. She wanted her to work full time.
Disappointments continued to stack up. On her way to take an English placement exam for incoming UC freshmen one May morning, De La Cruz stopped at a church to light a candle, hoping she could test out of a remedial course.
Her prayers weren’t answered. De La Cruz would have to take at least one remedial English course before she could take regular freshman English, meaning she might have to spend an extra quarter at UCLA. She’d hoped to graduate in four years to save money.
She managed to keep her dream of living in a dorm alive until late spring, when she realized that she wouldn’t be able to afford it.
Her mood was still dark a few weeks later, when she went to the Boys & Girls Club’s College Bound program annual awards ceremony. But at the end of the evening, she was awarded a $4,000 scholarship.
De La Cruz had splurged on a white shirt and wore heels, walking stiffly next to her mother. She saw a familiar face among the servers at the banquet: her older brother.
He was a potent reminder of what can happen to her if she does poorly in school. He married early and has a young daughter. He works long hours and has little chance of moving out of the cramped apartment.
As the ceremony ended and the waiters wolfed their dinners in a side room, her brother found her. “I’m proud of you,” he whispered before returning to his co-workers. He still had to clean the auditorium.
Their mother didn’t say anything.
Later in the summer, Mike Lansing, director of the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, held a fundraiser for De La Cruz, bringing her college fund to $10,680. That was enough for maybe two quarters.
Club officials held out hope that more people would donate, but said they wouldn’t be able to help more.
“We can only do this once,” Lansing said.
When De La Cruz, a psychology major, registered for courses in August, most science classes were full. She was able to sign up for 12 units, three fewer than she wanted, and had to take two pass/fail electives to fill her schedule. She was so stunned that she froze up and stared at the computer until a proctor asked her what was wrong. “This isn’t going well,” De La Cruz said.
On Sept. 25, her first day of school, De La Cruz found a seat in the back of the bus and tried to sleep, but her excitement and the stop-and-go motion made it impossible. She transferred buses downtown and stared out the window at Koreatown and Mid-Wilshire, parts of town she’d never seen.
“I’m feeling all poor,” De La Cruz said after passing a BMW dealership.
She walked into her first class, a discussion for a Life Science course, at 9:03 a.m., three minutes late. She eagerly took a seat with about a dozen other students, but left when the professor didn’t show.
Disappointed, she wandered down to Bruin Walk, where sororities were out recruiting. She smoothed her black hair, unruly from two hours on the bus. A blond sorority sister glanced at De La Cruz and yanked back the flier.
Later, De La Cruz spoke to members of a Latina sorority and mentioned that the professor had missed class. They never show up for the first discussion, they said. What is there to talk about, summer vacation? And don’t worry about Life Science, it’s an easy A.
De La Cruz missed only one day of classes over the next month. That Friday, she was late to a bus connection and frantically skateboarded down Wilshire Boulevard for 45 minutes before realizing she wouldn’t make it in time and turned around, sweaty and frustrated.
Despite her diligence, De La Cruz struggled to keep up.
“Tell me about the naked mole rats,” a tutor asked her Oct. 22, the day before a Life Science midterm.
“Ummm,” she replied, staring at her notebook.
It was the second tutoring session De La Cruz attended. UCLA officials say she missed other opportunities: A student like her probably had been invited to a summer program, and there’s also an academic advancement program she could have joined, said Thomas Lifka, an associate vice chancellor.
Lifka became exasperated when told De La Cruz hadn’t heard of the programs, possibly because she didn’t hook up her UCLA e-mail account until well into the school year.
“Short of assigning a personal tutor, I’m not sure what else we can do,” Lifka said.
Before the science midterm, De La Cruz wanted to take an online practice test, but she didn’t have access to a computer at home. She returned to San Pedro and worked a few hours, then got back on the bus to Westwood for a study group.
On good days, the promise of a UCLA diploma seemed worth the 80-mile round-trip commute, but that night it seemed overwhelming.
Weeks of riding the bus and struggling through classes had taken its toll. As she rattled north toward campus, De La Cruz realized that her chances of getting a job as a psychologist were tiny even if she were to graduate with a B average because she probably can’t afford graduate school and most companies won’t hire illegal immigrants.
“I guess I’m going to have to put my diploma up on the wall and that’ll be all,” she said.
When she got back to Westwood, De La Cruz stopped at an apartment of seniors she’d recently met who agreed to let her sleep on their couch so she wouldn’t have to take the bus home. De La Cruz promised to be back from her study group by 11:30 p.m.
“No,” student Rosemary Garcia said. “You stay until midnight if you have to. Study.”
De La Cruz stayed until 2 a.m., then got lost and wandered the streets of Westwood until almost 3 before finding the apartment. When she went to take her test the next morning, she wore the same clothes from the day before.
She got her results a week later, crowding around a teaching assistant until her name was called and then grabbing her test -- a solid C, based on the curve.
At the end of the quarter, she had a C-plus in the class. She got an A-minus in art appreciation, earning a B-minus average. Still, she was crushed over her Life Science course.
All of those miles commuting, the cold silences from her mother, the long hours she’d worked, only to fall short.
“This C stuff isn’t working,” she muttered.
About this story
This is the first in a series of occasional articles about a UCLA student, in this country illegally and largely without financial or academic support, during her freshman year. The surname she uses -- her mother’s family name -- has been omitted to shield her from repercussions that could result if she were fully identified. Her father’s surname is being used instead.