Pursuing higher education without a social security number

BY Elisabeth Ponsot  September 29, 2013 at 4:30 PM EDT

When Hugo Nicolas was 11 years old and living in Veracruz, Mexico, his parents sold their possessions and told him they were leaving.

After nearly two days of walking through mountains and desert, he crossed the border into the United States with his mother. The pair met up with his father who had crossed earlier, and the family settled in Salem, Ore.

In this web exclusive interview with correspondent Rick Karr, Nicolas shares his story of growing up in the United States without a social security number.

Years later, as a junior at McNary High School in Keizer, Ore., Nicolas began to hit roadblocks in the college application process. Still a citizen of Mexico, Nicolas is considered neither an in-state nor out-of-state applicant, and was subject to the same tuition that international students pay to attend college in the U.S.

Despite strong grades, he was disqualified from most scholarship opportunities because of his undocumented status. He also could not apply for a driver’s license or obtain official working papers.

“I felt really ashamed, discouraged and guilty for not having a social security [number] or not being able to go into that process of becoming a U.S. citizen,” Nicolas said.

But in April, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed off on tuition equity, a law which allows undocumented students to benefit from lower tuition rates at state colleges and universities.

Related: Rick Karr explores proposed legislation to allow undocumented students to benefit from in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities in New Jersey.

After tuition equity passed, Nicolas said the remaining obstacles for undocumented students to pursue a higher education felt a bit more manageable.

“I was really excited to see that students like me could go back to their parents and be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to college,’” he said. “And that’s what I’m doing right now. And it’s going to be really exciting for students to graduate from college and even though they’re undocumented, they’re gonna get their degree and be able to work.”

Today, the 21-year-old student is working toward a degree in economics from the University of Oregon. He begins classes this Monday as a rising sophomore.

While Nicolas credits the tuition equity law for lessening some barriers to a four-year degree, he said he is receiving help on the cost of college from a high school mentor. He also plans to work each summer until he graduates.