From undocumented and afraid to social justice advocate

  • July 14, 2015
From undocumented and afraid to social justice advocate

Carlos Gonzalez Sierra is the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from the Dominican Republic.

I want to use my education and experience to help reduce poverty and create opportunities for hard-working people like my mother.

Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez Sierra

Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez Sierra understands many of the issues faced by Dominican immigrants to the US because he has lived them. For years he had no legal status in the country and, despite working round the clock, very nearly missed out on higher education. It was through sheer hard work, a strong support system and the willingness to grab any opportunities that came his way that he has been able to complete his undergraduate studies and win a congressional fellowship at the US House of Representatives and a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, becoming the first Dominican citizen to do so. 

Carlos was born in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. His family had a privileged lifestyle compared to the majority of people in the country. His father was a head civil engineer for a US company. They could afford a home, several cars, private school tuition, vacations to North America and even membership into the country club. His mother didn’t work and had help to look after Carlos and his two sisters.

That all changed suddenly when Carlos was eight years old. Carlos’ father was diagnosed with cancer and passed way soon after. “My father’s sudden death meant a complete shift in lifestyle for us,” he says. 

Without a college education, his mother found it difficult to get a job. She went back to school and started her own business selling pastries. Carlos and his sisters were still enrolled in private school, but due to rising inflation his father’s pension was soon not enough.

His mother decided to move to the US rather than risk her children’s education. Carlos says: “Before my father passed away, I took a lot for granted, including my education. I was even justifiably expelled in first grade. After his death, I understood the value of a quality education and the impact it can have on your quality of life.”

Moving to the US

The family moved to Reading, the town in Pennsylvania where Carlos’ uncle lived, and then resettled in Lancaster. Carlos remembers his first day at school. “I was excited because I saw my first day of school as the beginning of a more secure future for my family and me, but it worried me that I didn’t know English. I soon realised that I was far behind my classmates and I saw my hopes flash before my eyes. I felt lost,” he says.

Soon after he was transferred to another school and started to read children’s books which helped him with sentence structure and gave him confidence to keep improving. He says: “I witnessed how hard my mother had worked to get us to the US. I had no choice, but to try to make the most of the opportunities available to me. I owed her that much.”

The family had come to the US on tourist visas, which soon expired. After that they were undocumented which made access to things like work and healthcare difficult. Because of his undocumented status at the time, Carlos felt the only way he could make it to university was to be one of the top students at his school. He pushed himself, taking the most difficult classes and participating in several extracurricular activities. He was president of the Student Council and numerous other student organisations, volunteered in the community and wrestled on the school team. As he was finishing high school, he received a letter from QuestBridge, a programme aimed at preparing high-achieving, low-income students gain admission and full scholarships to top-tier colleges. Carlos applied to the programme and was invited to attend a college preparatory conference at Yale University. His teacher believed in his potential so much that he drove him the six hours to attend. “The conference showed me that, despite my immigration and financial circumstances, college was a possibility,” he says.


He applied to the eight colleges who were part of the partnership, but was rejected from all eight. No reason was given, but he believes it was because he was undocumented. “That was a very dark period for me,” he says. “I had sacrificed so much to learn English and catch up with my peers. I performed better than the vast majority my classmates in high school. I contributed to my school and my community. Yet society was telling me that all that effort didn’t matter because I didn’t have a 9-digit number? I felt betrayed.” 

His mentor recommended that he go to a local community college and helped him get a place, but he had to pay twice as much tuition because he was treated as an international student. He managed to gain multiple scholarships from his school and his grandmother and mother contributed some money. He also had a job working in a store where he was paid $6 an hour for effectively running the store.

Despite working hard during his two years at community college, Carlos also got heavily involved in student life. He was head of the Student Government Association Executive Council, representing 25,000 students, reactivated the Latino student organisation and interned for Pennsylvania’s Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino affairs, the state’s leading advocacy organisation for its Latino residents.

Amherst College

After his first year he applied to transfer to Amherst College, which was one of the colleges looking to attract the best community college students in the country. He went on a visit and felt it was where he wanted to live. So he spoke to the Dean of Admissions who said students accepted to the college were considered on a need-blind basis for financial aid. He applied and was shortlisted. While most students would just resign themselves at this stage, Carlos decided to ring to see how he could move up the shortlist. “I called the Dean to ask what I could do to improve my chances of being admitted. She told me not to get my hopes up. Amherst had not admitted someone from the waiting list in five years. I said ‘I have a feeling I will see you in the fall’.” A month later he had a call, saying he had been accepted. “It was one of the happiest and most significant moments of my life,” he says. 

When he got to campus, he worried he wasn’t prepared for the academic rigour of the College. “The first class I took was in a majestic red room. I couldn’t yet believe that I was in fact a student here. Many of my peers had attended elite public and private schools. I was intimidated at first," he says.

Carlos, who majored in Political Science and Interdisciplinary US Latino Studies, found political theory a challenge, but true to form, he put all he had into ensuring he got good grades, visiting the college’s writing centre and talking to a professor to try and understand the expectations for the course.

He also chaired La Causa, an organisation which brings Latino students together to celebrate and debate their culture and provides advocacy and support. “I felt an obligation to do what I could to improve the college because Amherst had invested in me,” he says. He worked on curriculum issues too and how to get more Latino perspectives on courses. “I think there is a tremendous need, considering rapidly changing demographics, for a greater understanding of the Latino experience in the US,” he adds.

His undergraduate thesis detailed the prevalence of electoral clientelism – the exchange of goods and services for political support – by Dominican expatriates participating in Dominican national politics within the United States. He says: “Latin America is increasingly becoming a transnational region. There is a growing trend for Latin American diasporas to participate in the domestic politics of their countries of origin and, in some cases, even elect transnational representatives. I wondered whether this trend was a reflection of the growing power of the diaspora or an extension of clientelism.”

During his time at Amherst, Carlos also sat on the Centre for Community Engagement Board and was the liaison for QuestBridge’s chapter at Amherst.

At the end of his course, he managed to get an extension because he was not able to get his immigration paperwork approved in time to study abroad. He went to northern Brazil for four months and found the experience “eye-opening”. “I lived in a condominium with a wealthy family overlooking the beach in Fortaleza and less than five kilometres from where I was staying the reality was totally different,” he says. “There was no sewage system, the schools were terrible and there was frequent gang and drug-related violence. Entering that community felt like entering a different country.”

Social inequality

That experience and his thesis cemented his interest in studying the links between social inequality, political participation and representative governance. He wanted to gain an international perspective so he applied for a Humanity in Action Fellowship in Europe in the summer of 2014. He was placed in the Netherlands for five weeks.

Since graduating, he has also been involved in organising and engaging voters in immigrant and low-income communities in Chicago, working on the Raise the Wage campaign in Illinois which targeted low-income workers.

After seeing things from a grassroots perspective, he wanted to gain some policy-making experience so he applied for a fellowship in the US Congress. For six months, he worked as a legislative assistant in the Office of Congressman Michael Honda in Washington, DC. His role focused on legislation around immigration and Latin American issues. He now assists newly arrived Cuban refugees to become economically self-sufficient as an Employment Specialist at Church World Service, one of the largest refugee resettlement organisations in the US.

At Cambridge, Carlos will study for an MPhil in Latin American Studies and will take his undergraduate thesis one step further, focusing on understanding the reasons why people in the diaspora get involve in Dominican politics. He says: “Ultimately, I want to use my education and experience to help reduce poverty in the region and create opportunities for hard working people like my mother.”

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