CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—To the beat of mariachi music, 25-year-old Norma Torres Mendoza and her undocumented mother, Carmen, strolled through a modern building at Harvard University among about 90 Hispanic families on Tuesday.
It was the Latino graduation ceremony, to which Norma, with her graduation cap and long black gown, and Carmen, in a gray dress and an irrepressible smile, had traveled together thousands of miles by car to celebrate.
Norma is among several Latino youths to celebrate exceptional achievements in higher education this month, including Margarita Cruz Sánchez, 18, accepted into five Ivy League colleges, and Yuriana Aguilar, 26, who became the first undocumented student to earn a doctorate at the University of California, Merced.
César Arévalo, an 18-year-old son of immigrants from Los Angeles, was also accepted at 11 universities this year, including Stanford, Yale and Harvard.
While the achievement gap among Hispanic students persists, recent data shows promising signs. High-school graduation rates among Hispanics rose from 71 percent to 75.2% from 2011 to 2013, according to the Department of Education.
College enrollment among Hispanics ages 18 to 24 went up 240% from 1996 to 2012—a higher increase than among blacks and whites, a census analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center shows.
Norma completed her Master's in Public Policy at Harvard School of Governance, thanks to a full scholarship that allowed her to pay for the program. As president of the Association of Hispanic Students of the prestigious Ivy League university, Norma helped plan Tuesday's bilingual event, which included many immigrants like her.
In order for her mother to take part in the event, Norma traveled from Massachusetts to Texas a week ago to pick her up, due to her fear of her mother arriving at an airport without papers. They left Houston by car destined for Cambridge on a three-day trip in which they discovered new parts of the country in which they have lived for 16 years. They ate barbecue in Tennessee. They saw the green landscapes of Connecticut and upstate New York. They had a picnic beside a river in Massachusetts.
"Those days were a very big moment for us because my mom was coming to celebrate her efforts, her sacrifices," says Norma, the first in her family to graduate from college. "She comes from such a humble place in Mexico, and we are celebrating how she came to see her daughter graduate from one of the best schools."
During the ceremony for Hispanic students, U.S. Secretary of Housing Julián Castro gave a rousing speech about the sacrifices of countless immigrants who have fought so that their children can get to an institution like Harvard.
"You stand on the shoulders of many people who fixed beds and made sacrifices; who picked crops and protested against the powerful; who fought in wars and battled injustice," said Castro, who also graduated from Harvard. "And seeing you standing here today was the reason for their sacrifice, it was what they dreamt."
Carmen is one of those mothers. She crossed the border in 2000 when her daughter was 9 years old. It was at that same age that Carmen dropped out of school in Mexico. "I really have no education, I come from a very humble place," Carmen told Univision News.
"I do not speak English and could not help her with homework, but I was always making sure that she would complete it," says Carmen. "I would give her a good breakfast; I supported her plans and projects. I always said, 'I have no money, but the only legacy I can leave you is an education, nobody can take that away from you.'"
She feels proud that her daughter took advantage of the opportunities that she came to seek for her when she crossed the border: "All I suffered for being far away from my family has been erased in seeing how my daughter is accomplishing her goals. I feel very happy. I am the happiest woman in the world."
Cruz Sánchez, 18, of Melbourne, Florida, was accepted into 17 universities this spring, including five from the Ivy Leagues: Columbia, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell and Brown. Cruz ultimately accepted a spot at Brown and plans to do an eight-year program that bridges an undergraduate track with medical school.
"I didn't expect this. It's a huge blessing to have the opportunity to choose among so many universities," she said.
Arévalo's family came to the United States from El Salvador in 2005. His parents, both teachers, worked in a factory and a clothing store to earn money while they validated their teaching qualifications.
He eventually chose Stanford after being accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia and Berkeley, among others.
"The arrival of each new letter was wierd ... I couldn't believe it was real," he said.
He plans to study mechanical or electrical engineering, as well as business.
This month, Aguilar, 26, became the f irst undocumented student to earn a doctorate at the University of California, Merced. Aguilar's parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico at age five, and she later got DACA.
Though she originally wanted to be a doctor, she studied electrophysiology, embracing her love of science. Aguilar's four siblings followed in her footsteps, studying aviation, marine biology, medicine, and criminal justice. Arturo Aguilar Torres, Yuriana's 22-year-old brother, who just finished his undergraduate degree at the University of North Dakota, told Univision News that she's his role model.
"My sister is like an idol to me, and the fact that she achieved a doctorate and got to this level is like a miracle," he said.
Additional reportng by Carmen Graciela Díaz