By Thelma Gutierrez, CNN
(CNN) - When we first met Nancy Guarneros three years ago, she was a 21-year-old honors student at University of California, Los Angeles working cash jobs as a tutor and babysitter to pay her way. At the time, she was applying for graduate programs.
One by one, letters of acceptance came in: Harvard, Brown, Columbia.
But Nancy couldn’t afford them on her own, and wasn’t eligible for financial aid. In her senior year of high school, when she asked her mother for a birth certificate to apply for a California driver’s license, she learned she was an undocumented immigrant.
Her mother, who worked as a nanny in Los Angeles, brought her into the United States without documents when Nancy was a baby. The revelation closed the door on greatest hope Nancy had for a life out of poverty – an education.
Currently, undocumented students cannot apply for student financial aid and they can’t legally work – so unless they can come up with tuition on their own, many are forced to give up their academic aspirations.
“I was devastated, blindsided, I worked so hard to get into college, now what?” Guarneros said.
California became the first state to pass legislation that opens up public aid for undocumented students,a major turning point for people like Nancy. The California DREAM Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law last month, will allow undocumented students to apply for both public and privately funded scholarships. For Nancy and thousands of her peers who came together in a relentless call for action, this was is a symbol of hope for their future.
"Governor Brown kept his promise to immigrant youth. We were happy he did, since so many of us helped out on his campaign,” Guarneros said. “California took a stand in the right direction, in essence did the opposite of what’s happening in other part of the country like Alabama. California is setting the example so that other states can follow.”
After she completed her undergraduate degree, Nancy decided to stay at UCLA, where she earned a master’s degree in education. Last year, Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, offered her a full scholarship to pursue a doctorate in education. Her dream is to teach, but as a student, she discovered another passion – advocating for immigrant rights.
This year, she organized a collaborative art exhibit featuring paintings and photographs of a number of undocumented students like herself, called “Dreamers.” With dozens of contributions from her peers, her dream was realized. On opening night, more than 200 people came to show their support for “Intersecting Realities: Visions of Immigrant Narratives,” which is on display at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.
“I want to show that we’re not just activists, and we’re not just students,” Guarneros said. “We’re also sisters, brothers, loved ones and to be able to show the intersections of all these students.”
“These images are starting to become dominant,” she said. “This issue is so rooted in my heart; it’s so important to me now. If we get the federal DREAM Act to pass, we need to consider our parents and immigration reform. There’s always going to be someone to fight for.”