A memorial service was held on campus today for two recent UCLA graduates who were leaders in the movement to support undocumented immigrant students.
Tam Tran, 27, and Cinthya Felix Perez, 26, died Saturday, May 15, in Trenton, Maine, when the car in which they were riding collided with a pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction. The accident is under investigation by the Hancock County Sheriff's Office.
The women were returning with a friend from a weekend trip when the accident occurred, friends said.
Members of the UCLA community, as private citizens, are taking donations to assist the women's families with funeral expenses. Campus community members are also establishing a scholarship fund to assist other undocumented immigrant students.
Both were instrumental in the founding of a student group known by the acronym IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success), which is a support and advocacy group for undocumented immigrant students.
"By all accounts, Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix Perez were outstanding students and beloved leaders who touched many lives with their courage, passion and intellect," said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in a statement earlier today. "As undocumented immigrant students, they surmounted exceptional hurdles to earn their UCLA degrees, and together with others in a tight-knit community dedicated themselves to helping others in similar circumstances. In many ways, they embody the values that UCLA stands for. The campus community joins with their families and friends in mourning their deaths."
Under California's AB 540 legislation, enacted in 2001, undocumented immigrant students are eligible to pay student fees as California residents; however, they are not eligible to receive financial aid or any scholarship funds donated directly to UCLA. Most of the approximately 200 undocumented immigrant students at UCLA are from poor families.
More than 200 people attended the memorial, packing a room at Moore Hall and spilling out into corridors. Family, friends, fellow students, student leaders and faculty members shared personal remembrances, tears and tributes, poems, and even laughter about how their lives were touched by Tran and Perez. Among those in attendance were Chancellor Block, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh and Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.
Wong, on a stage featuring flowers and and graduation portraits of the two women, said, "We gather together today to pay tribute to two remarkable women who were daughters, sisters, friends, scholars, leaders, activists and dreamers who helped changed the world."
Abel Valenzuela, a professor in UCLA's César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, said the AB 540 movement that is now nationwide had its origins at UCLA.
"Tam and Cinthya, along with others, were among the early founders of that movement," he said. “They were modern-day civil rights leaders. They represented the best that UCLA has to offer the world.”
Felix Perez graduated from UCLA in 2007 with a degree in English and Spanish literature and was the first undocumented student to attend Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
"She wanted to become a physician and serve her community," said UCLA Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Partnerships Alfred Herrera.
At the time of her death, Felix Perez was working multiple jobs, as a waitress, research assistant and baby sitter, to pay for rent, food, her education, and for money to send back to her family.
"This is quite typical of AB 540 students. She was unable to afford the cost of going to school, so she had to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet," he said. Given such odds, graduating from UCLA was a remarkable achievement. "And she graduated from UCLA with high enough grades to get into one of the most prestigious universities in the country."
Tran, who graduated from UCLA in 2006 with a degree in American literature and culture, was pursuing a Ph.D. at Brown University. She was a filmmaker whose brief documentary on the plight of undocumented students, "Lost and Found," is available on YouTube.
In 2007, Tran testified before Congress in support of the DREAM Act, a bill that would create a six-year–long conditional path to citizenship for qualifying undocumented youth who complete a college degree or serve two years in the military.
Two days after her appearance before Congress, Herrera said, the INS tried to detain Tran's family, Vietnamese refugees who had been rescued by the German navy. The family lived for a time in Germany, where Tran was born. But Tran never became a German citizen.
Because she was stateless, Herrera said, "Tran always considered herself a child of the world."
Said Block during the memorial: "This is an unbelievably sad day for UCLA ... an enormous loss for this campus. In their short lives, these two exceptional leaders had a tremendous impact, as you can see from all the people here in this room ... Let's remember the enormous things they accomplished.”
A memorial website has been set up, and friends have also posted slideshow of photos of the two women on YouTube.
Update from original story posted at 9:39 a.m.