UC Berkeley math club president comes out as undocumented

Tony Zhou/Staff

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As the video begins, a male Korean student stands with his back to the camera, facing a wall of blackboards, with his right hand poised to write.

“This is Terrence,” an unseen narrator says. “He’s finishing up a degree in mathematics and applied statistics at UC Berkeley. Terrence is going to break down the economic implications behind passing the DREAM Act.”

Terrence Park does exactly that after publicly coming out as undocumented himself.

His admission, filmed by the immigration advocacy organization The Dream is Now, has received national media attention, as the UC Berkeley senior has become one of a small number of students who have come out as undocumented.

President of the UC Berkeley Mathematics Undergraduate Students Association, Park defines himself as American in everything but his papers — he said he loves watching the NBA, prefers “American food over rice” and speaks English better than Korean.

“Honestly, I felt a little intimidated about coming out about my undocumented status,” Park said. “I think it’s the right thing to do, and I felt a little guilty about hiding my status for so long. Now that I came out, I feel that I’m doing something right.”

The federal DREAM Act provides a path to citizenship for undocumented individuals, like Park, who entered the United States before age 16, have resided within the country for five continuous years, graduated from high school and are enrolled in higher education or in the military.

In 2011, a version of the act was passed in California, allowing undocumented students to apply for financial aid, but the measure but has yet to be approved on a federal level.

“I think it’s courageous on his part,” said Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. “I think it’s important to tell the story of undocumented students. It’s important to educate the general population on how impressive these young people are.”

Birgeneau estimated that the minimum number of DREAMers at UC Berkeley is 195 — and that there are probably more.

Park was 11 when he emigrated with his mother and sisters from South Korea. In 2008, hit hard by the recession, his family moved to a one-bedroom apartment, and Park began working various menial jobs to support his mother and sisters.

During his junior year of high school, Park discovered his family’s immigration lawyer had forgotten to turn in an important document — and that the family was now undocumented. Senior year, Park realized that he would be unable to attend a four-year college due to his ineligibility to receive financial aid.

When the California DREAM Act passed in 2011, Park was able to transfer to UC Berkeley from community college. Park will graduate this semester with a 3.8 GPA in applied mathematics and biostatistics and intends to attend Yale University for graduate school.

However, his plans might have to wait if the federal DREAM Act does not pass. While he is eligible for financial aid within California, ineligibility at the federal level means Park will have to delay his enrollment at Yale and find other ways to pay for his tuition.

“I didn’t come out because I needed financial aid for Yale,” Park said. “I thought it was the right time to come out. I thought my testimony in this video would help the cause and encourage students like me to also come out.”

Meng So, Park’s longtime mentor and director of the Undocumented Students Program on campus, emphasized the social implications of the DREAM Act.

“For us, the DREAM Act is not a legal question — it’s a human question,” So said. “To have an education, to live freely and healthily — it’s an essential human right.”

Park noted that President Barack Obama has promised to work for immigration reform and the DREAM Act. Some congressional Republicans, Park said, have also come out in support of undocumented students like him.

“I think we all came here for the same reason,” Park said. “We want to live the American Dream, have better education for our kids and contribute to the community.”

While some have called for Park’s deportation, others, like Birgeneau and So, say Park is brave and an example for other DREAMers.

“I think the more people like him — who are so impressive and willing to tell their stories — come out, the more people at the federal level will change the law,” Birgeneau said.

So said that he believes others will be encouraged to follow Park’s example.

“Terrence is quiet and humble but has the courage of a lion,” So said. “I think many times throughout his life, people have told Terrence no — they told him he couldn’t jump seven feet. But he learned to jump eight feet.”

Contact Sophie Ho at [email protected].