From Mexico to Michigan

Friday, May 6, 2016 - 9:31pm

As the school year wound down and the weather warmed up, graduating seniors found themselves reflecting on their experiences at the University of Michigan as they looked toward the future.

For some of these students, however, this reflection felt a bit more gratifying, as the path to receiving their degree was paved with all sorts of harrowing obstacles.

School of Education graduate Javier Solorzano Parada is all too familiar with the challenges that can arise in pursuit of higher education. His story began when his mother, Blanca Parada Garcia — a single mother of four — realized that she could no longer provide for her family on her income alone and decided to leave Mexico to seek employment in the United States. With the hope that her children could have better lives and someday learn English, Parada’s mother crossed the American border with him and his brothers when he was only 7 years old.

After a long journey, the family eventually settled in Monroe, Michigan, where Parada attended Monroe Public Schools and first experienced the social and cultural barriers of being undocumented, including the incessant fear of deportation and an inability to understand his peers.

“I didn’t really know any of the language whatsoever,” he explained. “I would just repeat random words that people would say. I remember some of the other students would make fun of me, and I could tell by their gestures they were pointing and laughing. I didn’t really know what they were saying, but that was the moment I said to myself that I wasn’t going to be that person who people made fun of.”

By fifth grade, through immersion alone, Parada was nearly fluent in English and able to hold conversations at the level of any other child his age. When he entered middle school, his mother married a naturalized citizen and the two of them applied for permanent residency, which would allow them to live and seek employment in the United States.

However, in eighth grade, the steady progress Parada’s family had been making in the United States came to a grinding halt when his mother’s application for permanent residency was denied. She was ordered to stay in Mexico until she could be pardoned for crossing into the United States undocumented — a process that could take anywhere from three months to 10 years.

“It was probably the biggest transition for me developmentally,” Parada said. “I had to grow up really fast.”

Because he had been attending school in the United States for several years, Parada was given permission to stay in the country with his stepfather as a permanent resident, eligible for full citizenship after five years.

Unfortunately, in the year or so following her return to Mexico, Parada’s mother’s marriage to his stepfather became increasingly complicated and eventually fell apart. As a consequence, Parada moved in with his older brothers and their families, who were also undocumented and living in the United States.

Parada and his mother, Blanca Parada Garcia, after his graduation ceremony on April 30, 2016.

Parada and his mother, Blanca Parada Garcia, after his graduation ceremony on April 30, 2016. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Javier Solorzano Parada

Just two weeks after the transition, things took a turn for the worse once more when his brothers were randomly stopped by police, who, Parada claims, noticed a Mexican flag decal on their car.

“This was a time in Monroe where, for some reason, police were stopping immigrants who looked undocumented,” he explained. “I don’t even understand what that means — right?”

The police contacted border patrol, and when the two men failed to produce identification, they were taken into custody — one was deported immediately, while the other was forced to pay a $5,000 fine to leave the country voluntarily.

As a result, Parada was stranded in the United States with the wife of one of his brothers and their three children, who became his responsibility when he was a freshman in high school.

“I would take (my brother’s wife) to work, I would take (his kids) to the babysitter’s, then I would come back to the house and wait for the bus to pick me up so I could go to high school,” he said. “It was about almost a month that I had to live that lifestyle of being the man of the house at 13 or 14 years old.”

Eventually, his brother came back for his family and they returned to Mexico, but, at the urging of his mother to continue his education, Parada stayed behind.

“That’s when I became, I guess you could say, homeless, in a way,” he recalled.

With nowhere to go, Parada moved back in with his former stepfather, who by then had remarried and had a new family.

“I just stayed in one of the rooms and went to high school and took classes and everything,” he said. “I just tried to live my life as quiet as possible.”

While the new family was very supportive of him, Parada felt uncomfortable with his living situation and, in his junior year, decided to move in with his best friend’s family for the remainder of his high school career. He lived rent-free on the top bunk of his friend’s bed. In return, he promised to follow their household rules, which entailed a curfew of 10 p.m. and church attendance every Sunday. The family also let him borrow their car to commute to his job at McDonald’s, which he took to cover his additional expenses.

“I became very aware of my surroundings,” he said. “I would go to work and right after I would have to come straight home and go to sleep and every morning clean a little bit. Basically show, ‘Hey, I’m not just here being a burden to everyone.’ ”

All the while, Parada stayed in touch with his mother, who remained in Mexico and worked long hours to keep her mind off her son’s absence. Though she called at least once a week, her inability to see him and witness major milestones in his life was difficult for both of them.

“My mom didn’t get to see me go to prom — she didn’t see me on my first day of college,” he said. “All these experiences that are usually shared with your mother or your father, I didn’t get to experience, which made me mature at a very young age because I had to say, ‘Hey, my mom’s not here, but I’m still going to go through this.”

For Parada, college was never really in the cards. But with the help of Richard Nunn, a current Rackham graduate student at the University, the prospect of higher education became more plausible. Parada met Nunn through a University outreach program called Maximizing Academic Success (MAS), which provides college resources for Latino students in Monroe middle and high schools.

“He’s the one who told me, ‘I see something in you, and I think you’ll be a great leader someday,’ and those words really stuck with me,” Parada said.

As a mentor, Nunn spent a lot of time pushing Parada in the direction of college. At Nunn’s encouragement, Parada applied for multiple summer programs at the University — including Summer Engineering Academy (SEA), Michigan Introduction to Technology and Engineering (MITE), and Summer College Engineering Exposure Program (SCEEP) — which he attended from seventh grade to his senior year of high school. Nunn even helped pay for Parada to take the ACT twice.

“He really believed in me, and he showed me through all of these little things that I was supposed to be here,” Parada said. “He’s the family that I needed to be here while going through all of this.”

When Parada applied to the University the first time, he was denied. Slightly discouraged, he attended Eastern Michigan Universtiy for his freshman year, following the recommendation of admissions that he transfer after proving himself at another four-year institution. After finishing his first year of college with a 3.7 grade point average, he was finally accepted.

However, getting into the school of his dreams was only the first step.

“My first and second semester, I was very confident,” he recalled. “But I didn’t understand what it meant to be a student at U-M.”

Parada encountered many obstacles here that are typical for most students transitioning into higher education as well as some that were completely unique to his situation. He tackled the usual seasonal depression, slipping grades and the pressures of fitting in — in addition to his own constant financial pressure, language comprehension barrier and navigation of the intricacies of academia as a first-generation student.

“Having my own money to be able to pay for bills has always been one of the biggest things,” he said. “I have absolutely no support from anyone ... I can’t just say, ‘Oh, Mom, can you pay for my ticket? I wanna do Spring Break in Cancun.’ There’s even no thinking about that.”

Parada remained homeless throughout college, spending the required holiday breaks with friends and occasionally visiting his family in Mexico when finances permitted — but despite his circumstances, he remained optimistic.

“I feel like everywhere is home, because I have no home,” he said. “I can fit all of my things in a car. Like, that’s everything I own.”

But while Parada struggled in some areas, he thrived in others. Among his many accomplishments, he helped found an organization on campus called PILOT, which aims to help current and prospective students better understand the structure of the University and develop skills that will aid them throughout their college careers. Through PILOT, Parada helped organize the Big House Program, which helps high school seniors through the college application process, acquaints them with students and faculty and provides them with resources for their transition into higher education.

The rest of his resume is equally impressive: Parada was on the Multicultural Greek Council, president of Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, coordinator of the freshman orientation for incoming Latino students, an intern at the Center for Educational Outreach, a social justice advocate for the University’s Program on Intergroup Relations, an internship coordinator for Upward Bound — a program funded by the U.S. government which aims to improve high school students’ study skills and prepare them for both higher education and career paths.

On April 30, 2015, Parada hosts UM's first annual Arab graduation ceremony.

On April 30, 2015, Parada hosts UM's first annual Arab graduation ceremony. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Javier Solorzano Parada

Now, with four years of remarkable community service and educational outreach under his belt, Parada will go on to attend the master’s program here at the University for higher education.

“I want to give voice to every student who is not heard,” he explained. “Because honestly, I think, as a minority Latino student here who is first-generation, I’m almost meant to fail. (At first) I didn’t understand how to take classes, when to go to office hours, how to read college-level material — these are all things that may seem common sense to students, but for someone whose parents didn’t even get past the fifth grade ... these things are new to me.”

Parada did not take on this new phase of his life alone — his mother travelled to the United States from Mexico for the first time in 10 years to watch him graduate. When she arrived, she was greeted with the barrage of activities that Parada had planned for her: a photoshoot, a campus tour, a ceremony for Latinx students and an appointment to get her hair done.

“I basically want her to feel great and look great and see all I’ve done on campus,” he explained before her arrival. “She doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a college student because she’s never been through it, but I think it will be nice for her to see the world I’ve created in her mind and let her compare that to what she’s seeing.”

Finally, being able to introduce his mother to his friends at the University was also a huge source of anticipation for Parada.

“A lot of people here have heard stories of my mom and what a great leader she is — just because with no education she’s done so much and she raised me, and I am the way I am because of her,” he said.

Now that she is eligible for legal residency, the next step for Parada’s mother is to decide whether or not she wants to leave her family in Mexico for a new life in the U.S. with her son.

“I’m giving her all the options that she can have just because I don’t want her to worry that I’ll be upset if she doesn’t come live with me, or that she needs to be here now that we worked things out,” he said.

Parada plans to start the process for his mother’s legal documentation soon, but still leave the option of moving to the United States completely open and up to her.

“What’s awesome about that is we have the option to say, ‘I want to stay’ or ‘I want to go’ versus ‘You have to go’ or ‘You have to stay.’”

In the meantime, Parada will focus his attention on helping students who may not have all of the necessary resources to succeed in higher education — his advice to them?

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he said. “U-M is one of the greatest institutions in the country, but it can be scary at times, and you can feel lost and not really know what you’re doing — but uniting your voices and making your voice heard is what’s important.”