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Student Uses Computer Language to Highlight America's Broken Immigration System

Cañada College student and East Palo Alto resident Sarahi Espinosa is using her website coding skills to help illustrate how America’s broken immigration system keeps her separated from her mother and prevents her from pursuing a college education.

Her activism and the website she's created has led to Espinosa being named a recipient of El Mensajero’s Mujeres Destacadas Award for extraordinary women making a difference in their community. It also landed her an invitation to a hackathon for DREAMers at LinkedIn headquarters where she met face-to-face with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and it has start-up companies asking her to sit on their boards.

“It’s been an amazing couple of months,” said the 23-year-old, who isn't even studying computer science. Instead, she's a broadcast journalism major.

It started in November when Espinoza was one of just 20 students nationally chosen to participate in a hackathon organized by FWD.us, an organization started by key leaders in the tech community to promote policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy—including comprehensive immigration reform and education reform.

Espinosa was chosen for the hackathon based on her website, www.sarahi.tv where she provides tips to low-income students to help them pursue their college education. She can relate to her audience because she shares their story.

Espinosa was brought to the United States from Mexico by her parents when she was just four-years-old. She moved back and forth between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, living with relatives and friends. It was a difficult transition and her father eventually moved back to Mexico. When she turned 16, Espinosa’s mother left for Mexico, but Espinosa remained behind to live with her brother’s family and finish high school at North Hollywood High School.

Despite the turbulent family life, Espinosa was an excellent student and natural leader. In her senior year, she was elected vice president of the student body, was named editor of the yearbook, and was president of her high school academy. UCLA recruited her based on her grades and extracurricular activities.

“I was stoked to go to UCLA but I never shared my immigration status with anyone,” she said. “I was afraid I would not get opportunities.”

She tried filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid but was told she needed a social security number to complete the form. “I was told financial aid is for residents and citizens,” she said. “I fell into depression and I was devastated.”

After graduating from high school in 2008, Espinosa moved back to the Bay Area to live with a sister in East Palo Alto. She worked as a babysitter and registered for classes at Foothill College as an AB540 student. That spring she learned that her dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her mother was caring for him, but they did not have enough money to pay their bills. Espinosa dropped out of school and began babysitting full time to send money to her parents.

In 2011, her father passed away. At that point, she was determined to go back to school to earn her college degree. She learned about Redwood City's Cañada College from Educators for Faire Consideration (E4FC) and was told to contact Adriana Fernandez, a student at Cañada.

“Sarahi reached out to me because she was really excited to go back to school but wanted to know about resources that would help her achieve her dreams,” Fernandez said. “I provided her with contact information for Margie Carrington (Cañada's Director of Financial Aid) and Trish Gueverra (Director of Beating the Odds, a peer mentor program at the school).

Espinosa said she enrolled at Cañada because it was community-oriented and had great support for undocumented students. “I wanted to feel welcomed,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel like a foreigner. Once I enrolled and began classes I immediately felt like I was part of the school.”

While Cañada made an impression on Espinosa, she was also making an impression on the school. Professor Anniqua Rana taught Espinosa in her English 100 class. “From the first day, I knew that she would be a pleasure to teach. She is very focused, friendly, and professional. Her optimism helps her overcome all the challenges she has had to face, and she likes to share what she has learned with her friends and classmates, whom she goes out of her way to help.”

To improve her website, Espinosa taught herself how to write HTML code for WordPress at Code.org. “That’s why I wanted to be part of the hackathon,” she said. While she was a little behind in coding and admittedly a little intimidated about applying for the hackathon, she was eager to learn. “Steve Jobs didn’t know to code or program but he had ideas,” she said.

At the hackathon, Espinosa was chosen as a group leader. Her group created a website, unheardvoices.us. They used comedy to illustrate immigration reform. “We did the Harlem Shake to attract viewers,” she said. “Once they got into the site they learned about immigration reform and efforts around the country to change the system. We give people links to take action, to contact their congressional representatives.”

It was at the hackathon that Espinosa met Zuckerberg. “He was a very humble person and very passionate about immigration reform,” she said. “It was great to see him bring awareness to the issue.”

After the event, she was contacted by a number of tech start ups and other companies. They wanted her ideas about how to improve their websites and, in one case, to serve as keynote speaker for a corporate event.

Ideally, Espinosa said she hopes her website and new found corporate connections can help make a difference in immigration reform. Her mother has filed a petition through the legal system to return to the U.S. but it has been stuck in limbo for years. “If we can bring awareness to the issue by sharing our stories, I’m hoping we can bring about change,” she said.

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