A story about immigration, the military and college.
“A constant state of paranoia.” That’s how Frank Calderon, an MBA student at NYIT Manhattan, describes his time as an illegal immigrant. Amidst recurrent challenges and uncertainty for undocumented immigrants and international students in the United States, his story is one of determination.
Frank (born Francisco Jose) recalls very well how it feels to be undocumented. Back in his days, 30-40 years ago, the immigration police used to do raids every day. He recalls avoiding them wherever he worked or went out of fear of being caught. Many of his relatives were deported.
“I don’t see it any differently now,” he says. “I’ve been on both sides of it and I can say the previous administrations have tried to enforce the law but they did only to a certain level. I think this president is taking a tougher stance.”
Frank wasn’t aware of his undocumented status until he started going to high school. His father had passed away when he was two years old and he didn’t meet his mother until he was nine. She had left him with his grandparents after his father’s passing and once she was able to settle down in Los Angeles, she went back to Sonora State, Mexico to take him with her. His stepfather was later able to get green cards for him and his sister. “It was a big relief,” he sighs.
Despite all that he went through until he finally got his papers, Frank now encourages foreign students to go back to their home country once they finish their studies in the United States. “Wouldn’t it be so much better if they could make those great contributions for their own people and their families? I’ve lived here and I’ve lived in Mexico. I know here it’s only a physical form of a better quality of life, not a better emotional state of mind.” Frank himself is looking to go back to Mexico one day.
Helping foreign students succeed is his passion in life. He believes the time to invest in them is now; when it counts. Before the MBA, he worked as an advisor for admissions at NYIT. “I enjoyed it because I would have never gotten to where I am without the help of others. Perfect strangers encouraged me to get an education. So, I enlisted in the army at twenty because I wanted to give back to the country for what they did for my family.” Frank served for twenty-four years and got to be a General Manager to a military and government contracting company in the Northern Virginia, DC area.
As a student now, he shares books with his peers, reads letters for them that they don’t understand among other things. “I’ve been there. I know how tough it is. I’ve learned Arabic and
Chinese throughout my military career. But at first, I couldn’t speak English. Back then, there were no ESL programs so I had to learn it on my own with a dictionary and a lot of television.”
The language barrier made him rebellious, he remembers. By the eighth grade, he dropped out of school. He had started working in his neighborhood at the age of ten just to help out with the bills. Years later, as time would allow and as he better learned the language, he would go back to school for six months and then to work for another six months. He didn’t finish high school until he was 20.
The most important lesson life taught him was not to judge people based on appearance. “As I travelled throughout the world with my military career I always talked with the locals. I still see myself as a foreigner, even though I’ve never been treated as such. Most people are too quick to judge because they are not really aware of the difficult times people are going through,” he says.
And he advises his peers to “Never quit. If you wake up the next morning, there’s your chance to do it all over again.”