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My Wheelchair Cant Hold Me Back, But Budget Cuts Can

New America Media, Commentary, Maria Salgado as told to David Bacon Posted: Mar 18, 2010

The March for California's Future began in Bakersfield, where hundreds of teachers and education activists rallied to condemn the impact of budget cuts and fee increases on students. As the march now winds it way up California's San Joaquin Valley, Maria Salgado, an immigrant student in Bakersfield, told her story to David Bacon of how fee increases are denying her the education she's struggled for years to get.

I was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, in a family of 11. To survive, all of us had to help grow corn and beans, and take care of goats and cows. There was not enough money to continue with our education, so all nine children only finished the sixth grade. We just learned to read and write. Those economic hardships meant that I could not continue my education there.

In 1998, when I was 17, I came to this country with my younger sister, looking for a better future. I began by working in a Mexican restaurant, but after two months I had a car accident on our way home from a picnic that left me paraplegic. With no education or other work skills, I stayed home for a year, reflecting on what to do with my life. I did not speak any English, so I decided to go back to school.

I started taking English as a Second Language classes at the Bakersfield Adult School. To get to school, I rode two buses. I had to take morning and evening classes to get the 200 credits required for a diploma. The outcome: a 4.00 GPA. On June 6, 2003, I received my high school diploma with honors, and was one of three guest speakers. Then I volunteered as a math tutor to help other students. At the same time, I also took classes for a receptionist certificate, so that I could begin to support myself.

At first, it was very difficult being a full-time student, but I always tried to be positive and committed. I have physical disabilities and am confined to a wheelchair, but I will not let it be an obstacle to achieving a higher education.

Then in August 2003 I started attending Bakersfield College. I managed to borrow or buy used books to keep up with assignments. It took five years, but I took all the classes needed for an Associate of Arts degree in mathematics and business administration. The math department even made me a Department Award Recipient, and recognized me for outstanding student achievement in mathematics. It is challenging to reach a high GPA, but with dedication and perseverance I earned a 3.39.

After graduating, I got to share my passion for math by helping others to become successful at it also. In the summer of 2008, I volunteered as a math tutor at the Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (MESA) program at Bakersfield College.

I believe it is very important to do community service because giving is an excellent opportunity to understand other people's needs. This is why I have volunteered with the Saint Joseph Church youth group since 2000 and as a catechist since 2004. I give at least six hours a week to both activities. That's also why I became a volunteer for the Unidad Popular Benito Juarez (UPBJ) Organization. I am now its secretary. Our mission is to educate and protect Oaxacan indigenous people in California. We also organize events to preserve our indigenous culture.

A year ago I was admitted to California State University in Bakersfield (CSUB). I've been living in California for more than a decade, but I still don't qualify for any type of financial aid. This has been true for my whole academic career, but once again, I have to overcome this obstacle. Graduating from CSUB is one of the last steps to achieve my goal - to become a math professor at an adult school. With a bachelor's degree in mathematics, I will be the first in my family to achieve a higher education. As a math teacher, I plan to encourage others to improve their academic skills, and become professionals to improve the quality of life for their families.

I'm proud of my achievements, and my contributions to my community. I'm glad I went back to school to bring my dreams closer to reality. But now they seem in danger because of the pressure of education cuts and the lack of immigration reform.

I still haven't been able to raise the funds to pay for tuition and books at CSUB, so I'm not going to school this winter. Tuition has become extremely high, and I can't afford it. Each quarter I must pay at least $1,700 tuition as a full time student. Books are also expensive and transportation is an issue too.

My parents still live in Oaxaca, and I live with my older brother. My dad has always been a farmer in our hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico, and because of him my brother learned to love farm work. He started working in California as a field worker. Now he's a foreman, and works really hard to support us. His wife works in a factory, where she makes minimum wage.

They have been like my parents here in Bakersfield, and I have lived with them since I came here. But they have five children, so it's hard to pay for school supplies and tuition. Two of his sons already graduated from CSUB, and two of his daughters are still attending school. My brother makes enough money to give us all a home and food. He's worked very hard to help all of us with our education. But now he can't pay for our tuition.

A group of friends from Bakersfield College and CSUB are trying to raise money to pay for my tuition. Before Christmas we had our first fundraiser, a tamale sale. To all of us it's very important to continue our education, and we're trying to plan our next event. As an immigrant, I have to pay higher tuition, and I get no financial aid. So we are also working to get Congress to pass immigration reform, to make sure all people are treated equally. If Congress passes a real immigration reform, we can help the economy grow and share our academic skills. Each one of us wants to provide service to our community, and to keep growing as an individual.

If the budget cuts stop and tuition costs go down, and if we can get immigration reform and equal treatment, we will make a contribution that will make our whole community proud.

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