As a young girl, Tatiana Sandoval ’19 and her family flew from El Salvador to visit relatives in the U.S. They moved to Maryland when she was 11, so she was stunned to discover five years later, when she asked her father about applying for a driver’s permit and part-time job, that the Sandovals were living in the U.S. illegally.
She was forced to reevaluate her assumptions about how she fit into a country she called home, and whether and what kind of future she could have here.
“I began thinking, why am I even in school if I can’t really go to college?” she said. As a result, the high school junior started losing interest in academics and deliberated dropping out of school.
It was her father again who stepped in to change her outlook. He encouraged her to push forward with her education, holding out hope that the political landscape might improve. Her dad’s counsel, combined with her own innate love for learning, helped her summon the willpower to graduate high school and pursue a college education.
Today she holds a UMD degree in psychology and works at the Latin American Youth Center in Hyattsville to set other people up—including her younger siblings—for the kind of academic success that she almost missed out on. As someone whose life has been dictated by erratic changes in U.S. immigration policy—and still very much identifies with her undocumented status—Sandoval feels a responsibility to help other immigrants navigate the sometimes-scary twists and turns as they try to build new lives.
“I wanted something to show… my parents (and) say, ‘All those times we cried together, this is it—we made it.’”
Sandoval’s parents were seeking work and a better future for their kids when they moved to the U.S. Soon after arriving, they separated, and she lived with her father and took on more household responsibilities even as she tried to learn English and succeed at school.
She remembers the sense of triumph of testing out her middle school’s ESL program in Hyattsville. “It felt like I was on track now, I know English, I’m an ordinary student.” She spent hours in the library reading.
However, upon learning about the legal complications that came with being undocumented, she realized she was still far from being an “ordinary student.” During her senior year of high school, when her instructors asked about college applications, Sandoval avoided their questions. She feared they wouldn’t understand her situation. But one said something that stuck with her: “Aim for the moon and you may land in the stars.”
Sandoval enrolled at Montgomery College and applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave her temporary protection from deportations and made her eligible for financial assistance from the college.
As a part of her mental-health program’s requirements, she began interning with the Latin American Youth Center, which soon translated to a full-time position. As a case manager, she provided academic support to students through after-school activities.
While working there, Sandoval enrolled at the University of Maryland in 2015, still a Dreamer through DACA. She also shouldered the responsibility of motivating her brother and two sisters to follow her to college.
“I sat them down and said, ‘If I make it as far as I think I’m going to make it, you have zero excuses to not make it that far; I want you to beat me,’” she said.
Since then, two of her siblings have graduated from UMD and her youngest intends to do the same in 2022.
Estefany Sandoval ’18 remembers Tatiana encouraging her to find a job and guiding her through her DACA application.
“(Tatiana) honestly just paved the way for all of us,” she said. “She was working and finishing school so we could be full-time students. She set a really good example of working hard and having goals and striving for that and not letting anything get in our way. And I feel that is a testament to where we are now.”
As the educational programs manager at the Latin American Youth Center, Sandoval oversees academic programs that the center organizes with middle schools and high schools in Prince George’s County. Her team conducts after-class activities in addition to developing programs that schools can integrate with their academic curriculum.
Now, she is working to address the needs of community members whose woes are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—her team is organizing food drives, helping residents pay bills and setting up remote tutoring for school children.
She also collaborates with the University of Maryland on behalf of the center to organize a bilingual program on college preparation for Latinx students.
“(Sandoval) exemplifies—when you have a dream, when you have a goal—you work toward it, and you make it,” said Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, director of UMD’s Office of Community Engagement. “No matter what her challenges are, no matter what her background is, she (didn’t) let that determine her future.”
This story originally appeared in Maryland Today on February 22, 2021.