Undocumented N.J. student won a big award -- that she may not be able to accept

Posted Dec 15, 2019

Esder Chong doesn’t limit herself to the boundaries of her reality.

She’s an undocumented immigrant.

Had she surrendered to her status, Chong said she wouldn’t be a senior at Rutgers University-Newark. She wouldn’t be an outspoken activist, either. Undocumented immigrant students and their families who face barriers to education, healthcare and driving would have missed her voice on these issues that she’s addressed at the state and national level.

“If I limit myself to the boundaries of reality of being undocumented, I would virtually not be able to do anything," Chong said.

The Schwarzman Scholars, a prestigious international scholarship program, recently validated her point. Three weeks ago, the committee selected Chong to study in China, overlooking the fact that she’s undocumented and risks not being allowed back into the United States.

If she goes, Chong, 21, could be detained after participating in Schwarzman’s one year-master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s most distinguished universities. If she doesn’t, a lifetime opportunity is gone to be with potential global leaders in a highly competitive program designed to deepen understanding between China and the world.

Out of 4,700 Schwarzman applicants, Chong is among 145 to have been picked, an honor for which she is conflicted yet grateful and humble to have received.

“I got the scholarship by virtue of my merit over my eligibility of citizenship in America," Chong said. “I ignored the possibility of me not being able to go and come back."

The brain trust at Rutgers University-Newark knew Chong was qualified. When she received the Schwarzman news, Chong had been already been invited to interview for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“I know first-hand the power of her combination of knowledge, insight, and wisdom from our many one-on-one interactions over the past several years, as well as our having co-authored an opinion piece and spoken at events together," said Chancellor Nancy Cantor. "Esder already is well on her way to becoming the global leader she is destined to be.”

Arthur D. Casciato, director of Rutgers Office of Distinguished Fellowship, said Chong is the bravest student he’s worked with in 20 years as a fellowship advisor at Rutgers and when he was at the University of Pennsylvania.

“They (Schwarzman) should be applauded for picking her despite the fact that they know how precarious her situation is," he said.

The dilemma, however, still looms and Chong is still undecided on what she’ll do. She’s consulted lawyers, but her future along with 16,830 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey, will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chong is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an initiative President Barack Obama put in place to temporarily protect immigrants brought here as children from deportation.

President Donald Trump ended the program in 2017, a decision that was debated last month before the Supreme Court while immigrants, who are known as dreamers, rallied outside on the courthouse steps.

Born in South Korea, Chong’s parents came to the United States in 2005 when she was 6. They settled in Highland Park, where Chong later learned the implications of not being a citizen.

Chong was not eligible for financial aid when she began to apply for colleges in her senior year of high school. The road to higher education for an excellent student appeared to be closed.

“Something I can’t control is blocking me from going forward, namely my immigration status," Chong said. “It’s like no matter how much we work and have merit and have credibility, there’s always this overarching barrier."

Rutgers University-Newark cleared the way. The school has a partnership with The Dream.US, a scholarship fund for Dreamers. For this reason, Chong chose Rutgers-Newark, then she went onto convince 30 private organizations to invest in her education with money to pay for the remainder of her education.

In that time, Chong didn’t just attend class. She became a vocal activist, first by starting RU Dreamers, an organization of undocumented immigrant students on campus.

It was the first time she met other Dreamers, young men and women like her with relentless drive to attend college despite their immigration status.

“I thought of the possibility of change," said Chong, recalling this thought, “What can we make change look like?"

They worked with the Rutgers’ administration to create an Undocumented Student Service Office to address concerns of immigrant students. Understanding the power of student organizing, Chong’s advocacy gained traction beyond campus. She’s been on panels and symposiums with research policy experts and on the ground with grass roots groups.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) invited her to President Trump’s first State of the Union, an experience she said opened her eyes to politics on the DACA issue.

“We’re being used as political pawns, bargaining chips for certain political agendas," Chong said.

Back home, Chong kept the immigration issue alive, working with coalitions supporting immigrant inclusive policies. She advocated heavily for a bill that provides equity in financial aid for Dreamers. Gov. Murphy signed the legislation last year, giving Chong a high five during a press conference at Rutgers-University-Newark.

Activism can be tiring for Chong, but she’s not letting up. The consequences of waiting, she said, has major repercussions. Undocumented immigrant families are detained and separated. They don’t seek healthcare. Some risk driving without a license to work while others forego getting behind the wheel, making their lives difficult.

“Non-affected people don’t truly understand what it means to wait," Chong said.

She can’t and won’t. Last month, Chong was on the steps of the Supreme Court protesting with immigrant organizations while justices heard DACA arguments inside.

On Thursday she was in Trenton, telling the Senate Transportation Committee in the morning why they should approve the driver’s license bill, which is scheduled for a vote Monday in the Assembly.

Several hours later that day, faculty and staff at Rutgers in New Brunswick listened to Chong speak during a conference about how they can support undocumented students on campus.

“Considering the past three years, I’m all the more energized to keep going just because of the consequence of advocacy," Chong said. “Activism is real change in people’s lives."

Her’s especially.

She signed the contract for the Schwarzman Award but hasn’t made up mind on whether to go.

Whatever Chong decides, her life’s work as a public servant will continue to challenge the boundaries of her reality.

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