Jessica Saca ’19 Wins the Litza and Samuel Schlanger Scholarship

Jessica Saca ’19 Wins the Litza and Samuel Schlanger Scholarship

Jessica Saca ’19 Wins the Litza and Samuel Schlanger Scholarship

Jessica Saca ’19 has traveled a long way, mentally and physically, from the mountains of Ecuador where she spent her early childhood. A Law and Society major with her sights set on becoming a lawyer, soft-spoken Saca has never let anything stand in the way of reaching her academic and professional dreams. She’s a wife, she’s a new mother, she’s the first in her family to attend college, and she’s a proud Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient. “When I was approved for DACA I remember feeling free because I didn’t have to be in the shadows anymore,” says Saca. “Saying that you are a DACA student can be daunting, but now I’m able to do so much more than before.” We sat down with Saca to learn more about her journey, her struggles, and her successes on the road to becoming a lawyer that will help other immigrants like herself.

“When I was approved for DACA I remember feeling free because I didn’t have to be in the shadows anymore.”  —Jessica Saca

Life in Ecuador
Saca was born in Quito, Ecuador, but when her parents migrated to the United States, Saca and her sister moved to a rural mountain area with grandparents, uncles, and aunts. “We lived in a little house on the top of a hill. Everything was scarce, the food and the education. There were times when we didn’t have things to eat, and we all slept in one bed,” she says. When Saca was only eight years old, she and her sister joined their parents in Rockland County, New York because of the violence and alcoholism they witnessed in Ecuador. “I was scared of having to migrate to a country where I didn’t know anything. I only knew Spanish. But I realized that the opportunity of being in the United States, with the education you can receive, I had to strive to take advantage of that,” says Saca. “Sometimes when I’m walking to Port Authority, I still can’t believe that I’m here in this city, compared to how my life was back in Ecuador.”   

“In school I was always proud of my accomplishments, but I would still question if that would be enough to overcome the barrier of not being documented.” —Jessica Saca

Life in New York
Rockland County was a far cry from Ecuador in many ways for Saca—seeing her first snow fall, buying her clothes at Walmart, getting to learn a new language, and most importantly bonding with her parents. “At Walmart my mom didn’t know what sizes we were because we had grown so much since the last time she saw us,” says Saca. “But it was great finally getting to see her and spend time with her.” English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes were a saving grace for Saca. The ESL teachers helped her get up to speed and feel more confident with the new curriculum. “My parents didn’t go to school, and it was scary being a first-generation student. You have to learn by yourself and push yourself to succeed,” says Saca. As she excelled in school, Saca took honors classes and made acing the SATs her main mission in life. She also looked into scholarships, but bumped up against a stumbling block. “They asked for a social security number, and I began to ask, ‘What do I do?’ That’s when the reality of my status hit me. I started to breakdown a little,” says Saca. “I remember telling my mom, ‘What’s the point if they’re going to deny me because I don’t have a social?’” But remembering where she came from, and seeing how hard her parents worked, helped Saca stay the course and focus even harder on her studies. Throughout high school she made the honor roll and the national honors society. “In school I was always proud of my accomplishments, but I would still question if that would be enough to overcome the barrier of not being documented.”

Life with DACA
For many undocumented students, there’s life before DACA, and life after DACA, with a striking difference in terms of access, justice, and happiness. After hearing about DACA on a public bus and seeing it on a flier, Saca got excited at the possibility of being accepted into the program. “It would allow me to go to college, work, and even get a driver’s license. I didn’t drive because I was so scared of getting pulled over, so I would take the bus all over the place,” she says. Even her employment situation changed. Saca had been working at a nail salon for three dollars an hour. “Going from that to working a job where I was getting paid $16 an hour, that was amazing. I felt liberated because I wasn’t in the shadows anymore.” Saca went on to attend Rockland Community College (RCC) and saved up for a four-year college. The Director of Criminal Justice at RCC helped her transfer and apply to John Jay. “I cried when I received my acceptance package from John Jay, because up until that point, everything seemed so hard. I still can’t believe this is my last semester here.”

“I cried when I received my acceptance package from John Jay, because up until that point, everything seemed so hard. I still can’t believe this is my last semester here.” —Jessica Saca

Life Goals
A Law and Society major, Saca knows exactly what she wants to do with both her life and her education. She wants to become a lawyer. When Saca was still a young girl getting used to New York, her father received a traffic violation. She knew her father was a hard-working, conscientious man who would get up and go to work at 4:00 A.M. and not get home until the next day. He sacrificed everything for his family and instilled a strong work ethic in her. That’s why it hit Saca hard when she saw fear in his face having to go to traffic court. “We didn’t understand that it was a simple traffic violation. Back then, having to go to traffic court was really daunting,” she says. “I stood by his side trying to protect him. There were so many lawyers in the room who only spoke English, and unfortunately there were a lot of immigrants that didn’t know English. I understand that people should learn English, but it’s hard. I’ve gone through it myself. It’s even harder for someone who’s older.” That’s when she made up her mind to become a lawyer that could help defend and communicate with people like her father. “Now that I’m older, I can see how much of a difference having that type of representation makes. That’s where my interest in the law comes from. I want to make a change in my community and bring more diversity to the legal profession.”

“I want to make a change in my community and bring more diversity to the legal profession.” —Jessica Saca

Life with a Scholarship
Being a new mom—her daughter is only a few months old—working, and trying to finish College wouldn’t be easy for anyone, but none of these challenges have stopped Saca from reaching for her dreams. “I’m going to law school. No matter how hard it is, I have to do it. I’m studying for the LSATs right now. I might take a semester off or go directly, but I’m going to law school. I can’t stop,” says Saca. One of the happiest moments in her life was finding out that she received the Litza and Samuel Schlanger Scholarship. The scholarship, created especially for immigrants in honor of Litza, who was an immigrant herself, and Samuel Schlanger, has made Saca’s daily life a little easier. “To know that the scholarship came from an immigrant to another fellow immigrant, I couldn’t be more thankful. It lifts so much weight off me that I can focus more on my work and studies. It makes breathing a little easier,” says Saca. “The saying paying it forward means so much to me. I wish to do the same with my education later because I’m thankful to Schlanger family.”