The DREAMer Next Door

Isioma Nwabuzor
Isioma Nwabuzor, vice president and associate general counsel at Baird, talks about her journey as an undocumented lawyer at TEDx UWMilwaukee.

Isioma Nwabuzor, vice president and associate general counsel at Baird, talks about her journey as an undocumented lawyer at TEDx UWMilwaukee.

TEDx UWMilwaukee

It was my senior year, and my high school hosted a voluntary workshop on weekends for graduating seniors who planned on attending a college or university. The workshop helped seniors and their families understand the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process. There, students would be able to complete and successfully submit their applications, putting one part of the path to post-secondary education behind them.

Being the eldest of my parents’ three children and relatively unfamiliar with the college application process, my family and I jumped at the opportunity to attend the workshop and get all the assistance available to us.

We sat through the workshop, and I submitted my FAFSA application. However, for some strange reason, I wasn’t getting the same “Congrats, successfully submitted!” message that everyone else was receiving. Panicked, I waved over a guidance counselor who quickly alleviated our concerns and said, not to worry. They were sure my college (Marquette University) would reach out with additional instructions.

From then on, I didn’t think much about my FAFSA application until a few months before my freshman year of college. I’d received a communication stating that to process my FAFSA application, my college would need a copy of my birth certificate. For me, this seemed like an odd request. Why would I need a birth certificate for financial aid? What did my birth certificate have to do with my expected family contribution or any of those numbers? Did they ask everyone for their birth certificates?

It was then that I found out.

It was then that I found out that I didn’t have an American birth certificate.

It was then that I found out that I was born in Nigeria.

It was then that I found out that I was brought to the United States at 18 months old.

It was then that I found out that I was a DREAMer.

The word DREAMer comes from the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act—an Act that has been ping-ponged in Congress for decades and a term that is used to describe those in the United States illegally, who were brought here as minors.

At 18 years old, my world as I knew it turned on its axis. The past began to make a lot more sense, and my future became a lot more uncertain.

The continuous pressure to work hard, excel academically, choose a prestigious career, and to leave no room for bad decisions suddenly made sense.

I’d never met my grandparents. Growing up, I’d written it off as being too expensive or too tedious for my family to make the journey back home. All the while, this wasn’t by choice; the United States places a 10-year, automatic ban on reentry into the United States if anyone undocumented ever leaves. Thus, visiting family back home was a reality that my parents yearned for, but that would never come to fruition.

I quickly learned that the girls’ trips overseas, destination vacations, or even traveling to an international office for work wouldn’t be an option for me.

Eventually, I’d learn that even with my political science degree, DREAMers aren’t afforded the privilege of a political voice through voting. So, I’d be left to endure the decisions of a society in which I have no say.

Being a DREAMer meant that my FAFSA application was never successfully submitted because undocumented students don’t qualify for federal aid. This also meant that the options to pay for post-secondary education became that much more limited.

Nevertheless, my parents’ sacrifices didn’t allow for a lack of federal aid to deter their quest for a better life for their children. We figured it out. I would work 24 hours every weekend through college, 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and then again Sunday, to gather what little money I could to cover books, materials, and a portion of my tuition costs. I would apply for any and every scholarship for which I was eligible. For the next four years, my parents contributed every nickel and dime that they could to my education.

Not to be deterred from my ultimate goal of becoming an attorney, I set my sights on law school—even more committed to this prospective career now more than ever. However, law school came with more hurdles. It was even more expensive, and there were fewer options available for financial assistance. I also didn’t have the option to work a part-time job to cover some of my expenses. Again, we figured it out.

Now, here I am, five years later, working as an in-house corporate attorney. From nine to five, I serve as vice-president and associate general counsel at an international financial services firm. From five to nine, however, my focus is on my passion project, The DREAMer Next Door, Incorporated (TDND).

I founded TDND in 2019 to address this lingering concern. Coined after my TEDx Talk of the same name, TDND is designed to engage millennials and spark advocacy on pressing sociopolitical issues, particularly immigration reform, in hopes of mobilizing change.

TDND’s hallmark program is our annual scholarship award. As DREAMers don’t qualify for FAFSA, we often find ourselves in at least one of the following predicaments: (1) We opt out of acceptance at a higher-ranking institution, for an institution whose tuition rates are significantly more affordable; (2) We pay credit-by-credit or work our way through college, which often leads to a prolonged and subpar academic journey; or, (3) We forego higher education altogether. The DREAMer Next Door Scholarship program works to alleviate at least some of the financial burden on undocumented students.

Being an undocumented lawyer is a weird paradox. As a lawyer, I see what the world looks like when our legal system does what it should for all. As an undocumented immigrant and a member of several other marginalized groups, I also witness what the world looks like when the legal system does not do enough.

I realize that being a lawyer equips me with the knowledge and the platform to help others like me. Through The DREAMer Next Door, Inc., that’s what I intend to do.

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Isioma Nwabuzor is vice president and associate general counsel at Baird, an international, employee-owned financial services firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.