Every weekend during her years in college, Julissa Arce took a two-hour bus ride from Austin to San Antonio to sell funnel cakes.
With the cash she earned she paid rent and tuition at the University of Texas at Austin. Sticky hands and bouncy bus rides led to a degree in finance from one of America’s best universities and an internship at Goldman Sachs.
About 17,000 people apply for jobs at Goldman Sachs each year, but only 300 or so are hired. Arce parlayed her internship into a career.
“A lot of people would say I stole that job from a U.S. citizen,” she said. “I think that I earned it.”
She became a vice president at age of 27 and earned considerable amounts of money. Money, she learned, is not an end-all, be-all.
The Latina activist and writer spoke to Southwestern College students about her bumpy road from undocumented immigrant to citizenship and the American Dream.
She arrived in San Antonio when she was 11 on a travel visa. She said she was completely unprepared for what came her way.
Arce said she had envisioned Americans as white since that was all she saw on television.
“When my parents told me I was going to come live in the U.S. with them, I was really scared that I wouldn’t fit in,” she said. “It was a fear that told me I didn’t belong here.”
When she was 14 her visa expired and she suddenly became an “illegal alien.” Overnight she went from the Texas sun to the shadows.
“How can I as a person be illegal?” she said. “I felt really ashamed about being undocumented.”
As a teen she laid low and graduated high school. By the time she was looking at her options for college in 2001, Texas passed a law permitting undocumented students to attend college and pay in-state tuition. She said she hopes the law does not get overturned by anti-immigrant Trumpistas.
“I just think how crazy it is that we would deny someone who has earned their right to go to college,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s a benefit not just to that person, but to our country.”
Arce advanced professionally while remaining undocumented. When she married in 2008 she finally had the opportunity to become a citizen. In 2014 she took her oath.
“It bothered me that none of my accomplishments on their own were enough to fix my status,” she said. “The only path to citizenship for me was being married.”
Arce said she was moved to speak at SWC because she understands the reality of students who live in the borderlands. Students have the opportunities available to them, she said, but may not see them.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to picture yourself in the future when you don’t see people who look like you,” she said.
Former Wall Street capitalist Arce has turned philanthropist. She is the co-founder and chairman of the Ascend Educational Fund, an organization that provides scholarships and mentorship programs for immigrant students in New York City. Ascend has awarded $200,000 in scholarships, she said, and aims to expand to Los Angeles soon.
Her new book, “My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant,” may soon become a Fox TV series.
Arce insisted her story is important to share with students who have a similar background. She said the key is never giving up on your dreams or yourself.
“It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible.”