Meet one of the few undocumented students in the US who has gotten a Ph.D.

The World

Yuriana Aguilar sits at her microscope in a biomedical lab at the University of California, Merced, that studies sudden cardiac death. 

Sasha Khokha

Have you ever seen a beating heart, pulsing on its own for hours, outside of the body? I got to see one recently, after it had been removed from a mouse.

“You can see that it’s still beating,” says Yuriana Aguilar, 26, a newly minted Ph.D. “It’s a very impressive organ.”

Aguilar is injecting a special dye into the heart, so she can look at the electrical signaling going on in the membrane of each cell. She’s a researcher in a biomedical lab at the University of California, Merced, in the state's rural Central Valley. She’s also the first undocumented student to get her doctorate at the university.

Aguilar is looking at mouse hearts to figure out what happens in the human heart just before sudden cardiac death, which kills hundreds of thousands of people in the US each year.

She came to California from Michoacán, Mexico, with her farmworker parents when she was five. None of them have immigration papers. She says she feels fear at places like her local flea market and if "they’re doing deportations or something. Nobody’s going to care that I have a title, maybe," she says.

But Yuriana is protected temporarily from deportation by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (also known as DACA). It protects those brought to the US as children. DACA allowed Aguilar to get a temporary work permit, which she must renew every two years. But it does not offer a path to permanent legal status. Without that, she cannot apply for many government grants and fellowships and cannot travel to visit the scientists she has collaborated with in Brazil, Spain and Argentina.

An article about her in the local Merced Sun-Star newspaper prompted a number of readers to write in, saying she shouldn’t be at the university taking space from a US citizen, or that she should be deported. "I’m used to hearing those comments," Aguilar says. "There are shortages of researchers, there are shortages of physicians. Definitely, if someone is more qualified, go for it."  

“She hasn’t taken anybody’s spot. She earned that,” says Alex Delgadillo, who runs a special office at UC Merced to help undocumented students, and to train faculty and staff about how to assist them. “Yuriana came here as an undergraduate, distinguished herself at her high school, she continued and excelled, did research here,” says Delgadillo. “She was up against competitive candidates, and she distinguished herself in that regard, just like any competitive candidate has to meet the rigorous requirements of a UC.”

Serving low-income immigrant students is core to UC Merced’s mission. About two-thirds of its students are the first in their family to go to college, and many are immigrants, like Aguilar. UC President Janet Napolitano recently earmarked $8.4 million to expand support for undocumented students across the UC system.

How two farmworkers put five kids through college

After working at the lab, Aguilar drives with her husband and 1-year-old daughter, Victoria, to visit her parents on their farm in West Fresno. It’s in the heart of one the most impoverished ZIP codes in California.


Yuriana Aguilar with her family in their squash field. She is the first undocumented doctoral student to graduate from the University of California, Merced.


Sasha Khokha

Her parents rent a plot of land to raise goats and grow squash and cucumbers they sell at markets in San Jose. Yuriana’s mother, Ana Torres, is a tough lady. She climbs a tall metal fence and leaps down into the goat pen to help a baby goat nurse.

“I have to be tough,” she tells me in Spanish. “I raised five kids, and they’re all getting their degrees.”

Tending the goats and picking zucchini has destroyed Torres’ fancy manicure. She normally doesn’t get her nails done, she tells me, but two of her children graduated this week — Yuriana with her doctorate, and a son as a pilot.

I ask Torres and her husband, Arturo Aguilar, what their secret is. How did two farmworker parents who didn’t finish elementary school put five kids through college? “We’d talk to them a lot, tell them they’re smart,” says Arturo. “And we would pay them $20 for every A and B they got. They had to pay us $25 or $30 if they got an F. We had to work harder to earn more money if they got As, but it was worth it.”

And if they didn’t do a good job in school, they had to do longer shifts on the farm, picking spiny cactus. Ana and Arturo say they were tough on their kids, but involved.

Arturo says a lot of immigrants come from Mexico wanting to buy fancy trucks or cars. “But the best investment you can make is your children’s education,” he says. “A car or truck only stays new and shiny for a while, but a child’s education lasts their whole life.”


Ana Torres shows off a baby goat to her daughter, Yuriana, and granddaughter, Victoria.


Sasha Khokha

Ana Torres starts to cry as she tells me how proud she is of her daughter getting her Ph.D. She walks over to hug her. “I am crying, but they’re happy tears,” says Torres. “Before, I was crying tears of sadness. Especially when Yuriana would call me to tell me that people cared more about her documents than about her intelligence or her perseverance in getting ahead.”

“Thank you for believing in me,” says Yuriana, “even though there were so many obstacles in our way. I remember you always told me that no one can take away your education. The government may not give you papers, but they can’t take away your learning.”

“That’s right,” says Torres. “I always told you that learning lasts you your whole life. It’s the only inheritance you’re going to get from us, and as long as we have feet to stand on and hands to work, we’re going to support you.”

Yuriana Aguilar says she hopes to open her own medical research lab. She’s got faith that somehow she’ll find a path to citizenship. But even then, she won’t mind working in the fields sometimes — or even buying a lot of land to farm someday. You have to do every job with dignity, she says, and with your heart.