I’m a Berkeleyan: Student Itzel Calvo Medina on how to balance activism and academics

Itzel Medina sits on a bench overlooking Potrero Hill

UC Berkeley student Itzel Calvo Medina has spent the last six years advocating for her undocumented community across the state. Medina recently authored A Student Guide for Community Organizing. Illustrated by fellow immigrant rights organizer Maria Hu Wu, the guide gives students the tools to build social movements of their own. (Photo by Irene Yi)

By Ivan Natividad  October 13, 2020

As an undocumented child growing up, I always felt like I had to hide a part of myself.

I was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and migrated to Los Angeles when I was five. My parents, my younger brother and I were all undocumented.

When I started kindergarten, we settled in Portland, Oregon.

My dad worked as a dry cleaner and as a waiter at local restaurants. My mom cleaned houses. We were not wealthy, but I went to a high school in Clackamas, a suburb of Portland.

Clackamas High School got more funding than other schools in the area, and had more white students than students of color. It was a very, very college-oriented school. My peers never questioned whether or not they were going to college or not. The question was more about what university they were going to.

I remember there was a board in the school’s hallway that showed where different students were planning to go to college. There were never many Black or Latinx students on that board.

When I was in high school, nobody spoke about undocumented issues. In 2010, when the DREAM Act was in the House and the Senate, it was all over the news.

But I couldn’t talk about it with any of my friends.

Clackamas High School parking lot in Oregon

Medina attended Clackamas High School in Clackamas County, Ore. As a student, Medina said she often felt like an outsider because of her undocumented status. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/M.O. Stevens)

When talking about the future, they were talking about getting new cars, going to parties and college applications. I was thinking about what kind of job I was going to get to help my family after high school. How am I going to get a job if I can’t get a license to drive as an undocumented person?

I felt really lonely. I couldn’t relate.

One day, my senior year in 2012, I told a counselor that I was undocumented. She was a little shocked and didn’t know how to help me. So, she just went on Google to search for scholarships for undocumented people.

In Portland, there wasn’t a lot of public support for undocumented people at the time. All of the college applications required a social security number just to apply. My only option was community college.

My counselor nominated me for a scholarship, so that I could get one semester paid in full for my community college. But I still wondered if it was even worth it to go to college. If I got a degree, I wouldn’t be able to work. So, really, what’s the point?

That summer that I graduated high school, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy was announced. I was able to get a work permit.

After visiting family in the Bay Area, I decided I wanted to get out of my little community and just kind of expand my horizons. I wanted to go to a university in California where there were more resources for undocumented students.

Group of people wearing ICE out of SF shirts

Medina has organized and attended rallies and protests to push for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In this photo, Medina, third from right in the back row, stands with her fellow activists during a 2017 protest against deportations. (Photo courtesy of Itzel Calvo Medina)

My parents had made all these sacrifices and really wanted me to get an education, so we all moved to South San Francisco together to live with my mom’s sister and her husband. She was pregnant at the time, so it was the four of us (and) my tía and tío living in a one-bedroom apartment.

In spring 2013, I started attending City College of San Francisco and took social justice and ethnic studies courses that really radicalized me and made me see issues that don’t just impact me as a student, but issues that have impacted me my whole life as an undocumented person of color.

Why did I have to hide my undocumented status? My parents made so many sacrifices and were working so hard. I was told that if you work hard in this country, you’re going to make it.

But we were still living in poverty.

Protesters lie on a San Francisco street handcuffed

Medina, bottom right, lays with her fellow organizers outside of San Francisco’s ICE processing center during the 2017 protest. (Photo courtesy of Itzel Calvo Medina)

I started getting more plugged into organizing around undocumented issues. I began sharing my opinions on social media, and some of my friends from middle school reached out to me saying that they were also undocumented, but they were just scared to talk about it back then.

We had no idea that we were going through the same thing.

Around that time, I remember watching the news and seeing ‘Dreamers’ out on the streets protesting and voicing their demands and concerns about undocumented communities. And they were being led by other young people.

I wanted to be part of that.

There was a group on campus for undocumented students called Students Advocating for Equity that I got involved in.

I also began doing research around why undocumented college students were falling through the cracks in California. It was because they had to often pay out-of-state tuition rates and did not get financial aid.

Through the different policy groups I’ve interned for and organized with, I began contacting people in Sacramento to help expand the qualifications for legislation like Assembly Bill 540 and the California DREAM Act.

Medina and three other activists stand holding a sign that reads "with ot without papers, we will always be illegal"

Medina, left, stands with fellow organizers during a 2017 demonstration. (Photo courtesy of Itzel Calvo Medina)

I wanted to make sure undocumented students could get financial aid, or at the very minimum, pay in-state tuition.

That has been a struggle, but just last year the state passed a higher education bill that allows undocumented people who don’t qualify for the DREAM Act to get institutional aid for University of California students.

Those are the types of wins, as an organizer, that make the work worth doing.

Over the past six years, I’ve organized defense deportation events for undocumented people, against ICE, with groups like California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance.

I have also continued to advocate and organize at the state and local level by sharing my story.

Through my organizing, I built relationships with Berkeley activists who encouraged me along the way. So, when I transferred to UC Berkeley in spring 2019 it was a dream come true.

The support system for undocumented students, and organizers, at Berkeley has really helped me to balance my academic and activist life better.

My first year here, I took a class with Victoria Robinson that really focused on student activism and explored policy around abolishing ice and abolishing prisons, which was in line with what I believe.

Itzel Calvo Medina speaking at a panel

Medina, right, speaking at a UC Berkeley Labor Center panel in 2016. Itzel talks about the joy of being with others, being accompanied by others and walking alongside, and supporting each other in making those steps together as organizers,” said American Cultures Center Director Victoria Robinson. (Photo courtesy of Itzel Calvo Medina)

Victoria has been a real mentor who has been supportive of me and really understood the challenges of being a student and organizer. I shared with her my experience as a student organizer and as a community organizer and everything that comes with that work.

That was the birth of A Student Guide for Community Organizing.  

It’s a collection of the experiences and lessons I have learned being a student organizer. I want this project to be a tool for folks that are coming into social movement building, whether it’s inside or outside the university.

My main goal is for folks to know that the organizing is really something that is a commitment and that comes with a lot of struggles.

Being an organizer is not all fun and games. We do it as a necessity for our community and for ourselves.

I think it’s important because, right now, specifically, the times that we’re in, under a pandemic, under a national siege of resources and just so much violence toward Black and indigenous communities, now is where a lot of people want to get involved. And that’s great.

But it’s how we continue to show up in these spaces that really is going to help us.

Itzel Medina hosting a workshop in a classroom

Medina hosted a workshop at the United Educators of San Francisco Conference in 2018. Recently she won Berkeley’s 2020 Robert J. and Mary Catherine Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Undocumented Students. “She does all of this work with passion, joy, creativity, and humility… Itzel is inspiring!” said the Public Service Center’s Associate Director, Andrea Wise. (Photo courtesy of Itzel Calvo Medina)

We can build more for our communities by understanding some of the privileges that we come with. I’m undocumented and a woman of color, but I still have this privilege of accessing UC Berkeley and the research and resources here.

So, those are privileges I am trying to utilize as an organizer by continuing my work and sharing my story now as an undocumented Berkeley student.

With this guide, I want to give students reassurance around the issues that can come up. It is structured to help student organizers through these moments where you’re not resilient, when you’re not feeling like a leader, and when you’re just feeling very weak and very sensitive.

You’re allowed to be sad, and you’re allowed to be afraid sometimes. Those are moments that I think make you strong and make you human.

I myself am just understanding how to balance each part of my life as a student and organizer.

But through my journey, I have been inspired by so many organizers, and I hope, through my story and this guide, to also inspire the next generation of organizers to find healthy ways of organizing around issues they care about.