Estefania de la Rosa
Estefania de la Rosa. As a teacher, de la Rosa wants her students "to feel like the classroom is just as much theirs as it is mine.” (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2021: Estefania de la Rosa advocated for a campus ‘where everyone feels included’

A DACA recipient, de la Rosa co-founded UndocuRams while studying to become an elementary school teacher.

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When Estefania de la Rosa started taking classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, she believed that she should keep quiet about her temporary residency status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

“For a really long time, I thought being undocumented was like this really big secret that I had to keep from people, because I was like, ‘Well, if I tell people, they're going to know that I'm different, and they might shut me out,’” de la Rosa said.

Gradually, though, de la Rosa became more comfortable with her place in the university community. She became an advocate for other students like her and made her experiences a driving force behind her academic pursuits. De la Rosa graduates this week with a master of teaching degree from the Early Elementary Education program in the School of Education. During her time at VCU, de la Rosa co-founded the UndocuRams student organization and led training for educators and students called UndocuAlly about how K-12 school personnel can support undocumented students and their families.

Throughout her VCU experience, de la Rosa said she has been aware that the ground beneath her could shift because of the uncertain status of DACA and all those who depend on it.

“DACA is something that’s always coming up, always being debated, so it’s something that I’ve had to think about a lot,” de la Rosa said. “When I chose my classes or thought about the profession that I wanted to go into, I’ve always known that it’s possible I wouldn’t be able to finish college — that I’d be stopped because of these outside factors.”

De la Rosa said she has learned to push the topic to the back of her mind whenever possible rather than allowing it to dominate her thoughts.

“If you let it, it can become this scary thing that keeps you from doing things,” de la Rosa said. “It’s not something that I can really plan for. I just try to stay optimistic about what I know that I’m capable of doing. My life experience has helped me to try to imagine the best future that I can.”

A drive to be a teacher

De la Rosa’s family moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 3 years old. She largely grew up in Chesterfield County. Following graduation from high school, she attended John Tyler Community College for a year before transferring to VCU in 2017.

She worked two jobs her first year at VCU while commuting from Chesterfield, limiting her opportunities to attend events or make friends. She remembers days when she would drive home from one job and stay only long enough to change her T-shirt before heading to the next job. Homework and studying usually were done late at night.

“It was something that was just necessary for me to do — I couldn’t not do that,” de la Rosa said. “Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be able to go to school. … It was one of those things that I had no choice but to figure out because that was the reality of what I had to do.”

With each semester, her class sizes grew smaller, and de la Rosa started to make stronger connections on campus. Today, she’s close with several of her fellow students in the School of Education.

“It's been nice to go from feeling like I didn't know anyone at all to having a close-knit group of people who I can talk to and who I share similarities with,” de la Rosa said.

De la Rosa has long known that she wanted to pursue a career as an educator. She was accustomed to being around young children because her mother cared for the kids of family members and acquaintances at their home. De la Rosa was motivated to teach because she did not have a great experience in elementary school.

“I want to be a good teacher for students who feel like they're not supported in school, and I want to help them enjoy their experience,” de la Rosa said. “I want them to feel like the classroom is just as much theirs as it is mine. I want it to feel like a second home for them or a safe community that they can go to.”

She also wants to help families like her own. She recalls translating conversations with teachers for her parents during school conferences when she was 6 years old.

“I know all of the things that my parents didn't know back then,” de la Rosa said. “So if I can not only help students, but also families, if I can give them resources that I've learned along the way, and then just make it as easy as I wish it had been for my family, then that's also a really big motivator for me.”

Embracing advocacy

For de la Rosa, the most important part of co-founding UndocuRams was finding other students facing some of the same challenges and contending with some of the same concerns. Among its efforts, UndocuRams started a scholarship at VCU for undocumented students.

“It was really great to find people who understood exactly what I was going through,” de la Rosa said. “We were able to share the same fears about things but also just be hopeful with each other about being in college. There aren't a lot of us, so it can be really easy to get discouraged. It was nice to have that group of friends who understood that.

“And then we also were able to advocate for other people who feel like, ‘Oh, well, maybe there aren't people like me and other people won't understand what I’m feeling.’ Or they just feel like college is unattainable for them because of their status. So we wanted to help create that environment at VCU where they can feel like they can be just as much a part of this community as anyone else. We want a community on campus where everyone feels included.”

Her experiences, advocacy and academic training made de la Rosa the ideal fit to lead the UndocuAlly training for educators this year. She said the topic is not addressed enough in education, and she was excited for the opportunity to shine a spotlight on it for the School of Education and local education community. She said the experience was “super gratifying.”

“It was great to see how eager the people there were to learn how to support their undocumented students,” de la Rosa said. “Some of my classmates told me they really wanted to get involved in this issue and asked how they can do more. That was nice to see not only for me but for their future students.”

De la Rosa has not had much time to reflect on her VCU experience this semester. She’s spending eight hours a day as a student teacher for 6-year-olds, and “that doesn’t really give you a lot of time to think about things,” she said with a laugh.

Still, she is feeling a lot of pride this week.

“There definitely were times when I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to finish school, whether it was because I was too tired from working so much or because DACA was being talked about again and I might lose my permit,” de la Rosa said. “Graduation was something that I didn’t really think about because I always thought I was never going to finish — something was going to come up. I’m really grateful that I was able to finish this experience because I really did appreciate my time at VCU and everything that it taught me.”