Mexican Immigrant Defied the Odds in Ivy League

caption tk

Cinthya Felix and Tam Tran are undocumented immigrants who rose from the ranks of America's public education system to attend graduate schools in the Ivy League.

But perhaps more remarkable than their matriculation to two of the nation's finest private schools is that they pursued their expensive, self-financed degrees without any guarantee they'd lead to jobs in the country they called home.

Felix and Tran died in a tragic car accident in May, shortly after their interview with ABC News. But friends say the duo's desire to defy the odds lingers as an example of the immigrant spirit they say has gone largely unnoticed in American society.

"Their courage, their determination, their spirit were an inspiration to us all," said UCLA professor Kent Wong, who taught the two students as undergraduates.

Tran, an aspiring filmmaker, pursued a Ph.D. in American civilization at Brown University. Felix, who dreamed of being a doctor in her East Los Angeles community, was studying at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

"I always ask myself is it worth it," Felix said of her pursuit of a master's degree in an interview several months before her death. "You can graduate from college with your degree, but your degree isn't worth anything because you don't have a nine-digit [Social Security] number that shows you can work."

She said her seemingly irrational goal was about more than money, however: it was a chance to defy the stereotype of illegal immigrants as "unmotivated and uneducated."

"I knew if I got accepted to an Ivy League school, it's showing the government and people who have anti-immigrant sentiment and all that that, hey, I'm here working really hard and I deserve for them to give me an opportunity because I've been very successful," she said.

Felix was brought to the United States by her Mexican parents as a teenager and grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs, one of an untold number of undocumented immigrant students who have been pressing Congress for a path to legal residency and easier access to higher education.

A number of legislative proposals in both the House and Senate, including the so-called Dream Act, would extend relief to students who arrived in the U.S. as adolescents, completed their degrees and have no criminal record. But election-year political pressures and a packed agenda have so far stalled consideration of the bills.

In-State Tuition Rates Help, But Spark Controversy

An estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. public high schools every year, according to the Urban Institute. Some later attend public or private colleges and universities.

State and federal law does not restrict immigrants from attending college or require proof of citizenship for enrollment, but some state universities and private institutions have deemed undocumented residents ineligible for lower, in-state tuition rates and financial aid.

"We're supposed to provide in-state tuition and green cards to people who broke the law and have no right to be in the country?" questioned Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports limits on undocumented students in U.S. schools.

"These kids are citizens of other countries, and they could go back to that country and get an education there at taxpayers' expense," he said.

Still, many state and federal lawmakers have acknowledged the unique predicament of undocumented students like Felix, who were raised in the U.S. illegally by their parents, consider the U.S. their home and have few ties to the birth country they left at a young age.

At least 10 states, including California, now allow undocumented immigrants who complete high school to pay taxpayer-subsidized, in-state college tuition rates, according to the College Board.

But Felix, who graduated with honors both from Los Angeles' Garfield High School and UCLA, said many obstacles to higher education and successful careers remain, placing an "unacceptable" ceiling on her dreams.

"I feel like, in order for me to grow I have to be doing what I want to do and I have to have dreams. And people have to pursue their dreams. And I feel like if you don't do that, what is there left to do?" she said.

Felix said her dream to open a clinic in L.A. has motivated her to independently finance her Columbia University education without help from federal loans or grants, or the ability to legally make money from a job.

A Classmate's Parent Pitched In

After enrolling at Columbia in 2008, Felix began working at a local pizza restaurant for cash under the table and solicited donations from friends and supporters using PayPal on a website that advertises her cause. Felix said she also received help from one compassionate parent of a classmate who offered to charge part of her tuition on his credit card.

Before her death, Felix had secured more than $13,000 in private scholarships toward tuition and several thousand dollars in savings and donations toward her goal of close to $40,000.

"I feel like I am just like everyone else," she said. "I want to help my community here. I'm not getting educated here so I can go back to Mexico and do all these different things over there.

"I'm getting educated here because I want to help the community where I grew up."

More stories from ABC News' special series "Out of the Shadows: Illegal Immigration in America"