For as long as I can remember, I have tried to define myself by my accomplishments. Top five in my graduating class. 3.96 GPA. First in my family to attend college. Multiple scholarships to attend the McCombs Business School at The University of Texas. But very few people know the story behind the achievements. “Brandon,” people would ask, “what’s behind your smile?” I would laugh it off. “What’s behind the wall you put up?” I would immediately change the subject. I didn’t want people to know why I fought as hard as I did for every opportunity. I didn’t want them to understand what drove the work, the volunteerism, and the 3AM study sessions. Telling my story was easy, I thought. Trusting people to protect it was another thing altogether. So I just put my head down, worked hard, and stayed positive. I never found the time, or the courage, to open up.

Until now. I have to speak up. I am an undocumented student. I am protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, and remaining silent can no longer be a choice: my very future depends on people’s understanding of what DACA is and who it protects. People need to know that I am more than just a data point on a graph or a number on a page. I am not here to commit a crime or take someone’s job. I am a student sitting across from you at Starbucks; I am a boy who grew up in Houston who doesn’t know anything other than a life in Texas; I am a kid who wants what any normal nineteen-year-old wants: an education, a better life for his family, and an opportunity to make an impact in this world.

On June 15, 2012, I was at the AMC 24 movie theater in Sugarland. Right before the movie started, I was scrolling through social media and saw a post that DACA had been signed. I will never forget that moment. I noticed my face in the reflection of my phone screen – I hadn’t even realized I had been smiling. My parents were waiting up for me when I got home. My dad told me he would find a way to pay for all of the necessary paperwork. It was close to a thousand dollars. “I will do whatever it takes to prepare you for success,” he said. Huge doors of opportunity opened for me that night. As cliché as it sounds, my parents came here so that I could pursue the American Dream. That night, after DACA passed, I felt like I could fulfill that purpose.

I have always had a plan for myself. Because of DACA, I was able to pursue summer internships with large corporations. I am currently thriving in my second year in Austin and am on track to graduate from one of the best business schools in the country. And after graduation, I plan to become a strategy consultant and incorporate my knowledge of Management Information Systems into my work life. I will work in the corporate world for five years, and then settle down close to home, work at a local consulting firm, and start a family of my own. I will show my younger sisters that they too can defy the odds. One day, I hope to retire my parents.

I would not be where I am today without the support of so many people. Guidance counselors helped me navigate the college application process. Mentors connected me with internship and job opportunities. Philanthropists created scholarships. Everywhere I look I see good people doing good things – people in power advocating for students like me. That is what makes me hopeful. I believe in America, and I know, through nineteen years of experience, that Americans believe in me.

Even though I have obstacles, I choose to remain positive. I still believe – I have to believe – in optimism, persistence, and in the good of our country’s government and its people. My story may be different from my peers, but I think the theme is probably the same: We are all students in a land of opportunity, and we are all learning to embrace who we are, how we got here, and the beauty of our interwoven struggle.

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