Heard on Campus: Julissa Arce at the Penn State Forum

Chris Koleno
March 20, 2018

"How am I going to actually take this job if I don’t have any papers? What were my choices?"

— Julissa Arce, immigration and education advocate; co-founder and chairman of Ascend Educational Fund; and author of "My (Underground) American Dream"

Arce spoke on her struggles as an undocumented immigrant, including the moment she received a job offer she had been dreaming about, during the Penn State Forum on March 20 at The Nittany Lion Inn on the University Park campus.

As a Hispanic woman and an undocumented immigrant, Arce succeeded even after being rejected from every college. 

"I had done everything I needed to do to go to college, but every single letter I received back was a rejection letter," said Arce. "Even for the schools I thought were my safety schools. What was keeping me from continuing to pursue this American dream, was this nine-digit social security number. It wasn’t because I didn’t work hard enough. It wasn’t because I got into trouble. It was simply because I didn’t have a social security number."

In 2001, the year she graduated from high school, Arce caught a lucky break. Texas became the very first state to allow undocumented students to attend college, pay in-state tuition and receive financial aid. Arce took advantage of this opportunity and worked hard in college, ultimately being offered an internship and later a job at Goldman Sachs. But she couldn't enjoy the moment she received the job offer because she didn't know how she would be able to accept the position without documentation. 

"How am I going to actually take this job if I don’t have any papers? Arce said. "What were my choices?"

After evaluating her limited options, Arce said she made the best, but not the easiest, decision. "I went out and I bought a fake social [security number] and a fake green card," she said. 

This was enough to keep her from being flagged as an undocumented immigrant, and Arce went on to rise up through the the ranks on Wall Street, first at Goldman Sachs and later at Merrill Lynch. But after achieving this success, Arce came to a turning point in her life.

"And it was then that I realized, while I had everything I could possibly want, including my American citizenship, (obtained through marriage) there were still hundreds of thousands, millions of people who were walking in shoes that I had once walked in. ... So that’s when I left Wall Street and I started doing this full time."

Arce, whose life in America began when at the age of 11 she immigrated with her family from Mexico, now works as an immigration and education advocate. She was undocumented until the age of 26, including some of her years on Wall Street.

"My story has a really happy ending. ...  And the reason I do what I do is because I want more people's lives to have a happy ending," Arce concluded.

The next Penn State Forum will feature Charlene Teters, academic dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts, on "If Not You, Then Who," on April 24, in the Ballroom of the Nittany Lion Inn on the University Park campus.

The Penn State Forum Speaker Series is open to the public. Tickets are $21 and include a buffet lunch. Tickets may be purchased through the Penn State id+ Office, 20 HUB-Robeson Center. For questions, call 814-865-7590 or email idcard@psu.edu. For more information and a complete list of speakers, visit http://sites.psu.edu/forum/.

Last Updated April 15, 2019