Students + Campus

A dreamer supported, a dream realized

Undocumented immigrant Seth Ronquillo wouldn't be graduating from UCLA without the guidance and assistance of others

Seth Ronquillo

Seth Ronquillo said he will continue to work to make sure other immigrant youth have the same opportunities he had.

Seth Ronquillo is inviting more than 40 guests to the June 12 graduation ceremony hosted by IDEAS, a support organization for undocumented UCLA students like him.

The reason for Ronquillo’s vast guest list isn’t a large extended family — unfortunately, only his mother and brothers can make it to his graduation — but because in his case it took the proverbial village to make his dream of graduating from college a reality.

“I was very fortunate to come from a small high school. All my high school teachers and classmates knew me, and they invested in me so I’d be able to go to college,” said Ronquillo, who emigrated with his family from the Philippines when he was a child. “If it weren’t for those people, I wouldn’t be here. A lot of undocumented students work as hard as I did, but not all of them have the privileges that I’ve been given.”

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Prohibited by law from receiving any financial aid when he enrolled at UCLA in fall 2010, Ronquillo had to rely on creativity, hard work and the help of others to pay for his first quarter.

His teachers and classmates at Magnolia Science Academy-1 in Reseda held bake sales and other fundraisers and they even took him to a taping of the college day episode of “The Price Is Right.” Although Seth never got the call to “come on down,” he ended up receiving a $5,000 scholarship check from host Drew Carey, who generously provided support after learning about Seth’s hard work and dedication.

“Because of that scholarship, I was able to enroll in my first quarter at UCLA,” Ronquillo said.

Despite the financial help, Ronquillo said that he was always worried about how he would pay for his next quarter.

“I’d take the bus to tutor someone in math,” Ronquillo said. “I’d tutor at their house, charging $10 an hour, even though the commute was longer than the time I would spend with the student. I also taught piano and applied for lots and lots of scholarships.”

Ronquillo’s financial situation improved with the passage of the California Dream Act in 2011, two separate bills that eventually allowed Ronquillo and other undocumented students to receive university scholarships from private sources, and starting in 2013, university grants and scholarships, as well as Cal Grants — state grants awarded to eligible California students that in most cases cover their tuition at California public colleges and universities.

Still, ineligible for federal aid and double majoring in linguistics as well as film and television, Ronquillo applied for and received the UCLA Labor Center’s Dream Summer, a 10-week, full-time internship that allowed him to work in the Chicana/o Studies Department.

Abel Valenzuela, chair of the department, said Ronquillo brought such a great set of skills and work ethic to his internship that the department brought him back for the entire year.

“He was an indispensable part of our staff, helping us with the development of our website,” Valenzuela said. “Here’s a kid who commuted all the way from the San Fernando Valley, and it was never an issue in terms of his work, school and campus activities. He’s the kind of student who should make UCLA very proud.”

Juggling two majors, jobs and an internship, Ronquillo still found time to become co-chair of IDEAS, which stands for Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success, and produce an award-winning documentary detailing his family’s struggles as undocumented Filipino immigrants.

Titled “US,” the 10-minute documentary about the American Dream told through the eyes of an undocumented Filipino immigrant family won best 2013 undergraduate documentary at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, as well as a Young Filmmaker award at the Eureka Springs Indie Film Festival in Arkansas. “US” is also an official selection at The Americas Film Festival of New York and will be shown on Southern California’s public television station KCET later this summer.

Although there have been other documentaries and films about the experiences of undocumented immigrant students and their families, they have mostly focused on Latinos. One of Ronquillo’s goals was to show the diversity of the undocumented experience, giving visibility to Asian and Pacific Islanders facing similar struggles.

Ronquillo said that he plans to pursue his interest in film after graduation and that he will continue to stay connected to the immigrant youth movement to make sure other students have the same chances and opportunities he had.

In addition to the financial support he has received, Ronquillo credits his success to the Bruin Resource Center, and specifically to the undocumented student program and his membership in IDEAS.

Ronquillo explained that before coming to UCLA, he thought he was the only undocumented student in the country. That impression quickly changed at a summer event hosted by IDEAS and sponsored by the Bruin Resource Center. There, Ronquillo met dozens of other undocumented UCLA students, some of whom were already graduating.

“I was like, oh, I’m not alone,” Ronqillo said. “The event showed me that it was possible, that I could graduate.”

One of the people he met that day was Angela Chen, the coordinator of the undocumented student program.

“One of the first things we want undocumented students to know is that this is a place that absolutely welcomes them,” Chen said. “It’s a safe space where they can be themselves.”

As Ronquillo prepares to graduate, he looks back with gratitude for the dozens of people, organizations and mentors like Chen who provided the support and encouragement he need to overcome his numerous obstacles.

And as the excitement of having his mother and brothers share in his accomplishments builds, he has only one regret — his father, who due to immigration issues had to return to the Philippines years ago, and will be able to join the family but only through Skype.

A family of at least 40 people, however, will be there to cheer him on.

“I feel I’ve had such an amazing family system during the last four years,” Ronquillo said, taking a pause to hold back tears.  “I felt so alone before, but now that I’m graduating from UCLA, it feels like there was a whole community and a whole family behind me.”

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