Homeless Student Beats Huge Odds to Study

UCLA student Diego Sepulveda slept in the library, showered in the locker room

August 4, 2010, 3:30 PM

August 4, 2010 — -- Diego Sepulveda has always wanted to go to college at UCLA, but he never thought it would be possible.

"Ever since high school, I always knew I wanted to go to UCLA but I never saw it as accessible or affordable or even just a possibility," he told ABCNews.

Diego has done what he once thought was impossible. At 22 years old, he's a senior at UCLA studying political science, but affording his dream has been a challenge.

His immigrant parents work in sweatshops, forking over what little they can to help. Diego himself has worked at Subway and McDonald's franchises to earn money.

Studying While Hungry and Homeless

"All my money went to tuition...so I was walking around hungry all the time," he said. "I didn't have clean clothes, a lot of the time I wore the same things for maybe three days."

On campus, where most of us see only labs and lecture halls, Diego also sees places to sleep, like the university's library.

"It's an amazing place, it's beautiful and when I didn't have a place to sleep or when I didn't have a place to go, I would pull an all nighter or I would stay up all night in the library," he said.

Diego's Humble Beginnings

Diego also sought refuge in the student center, sleeping on the couch and showering in the locker room, all because getting to his parent's tiny East Los Angeles apartment was even more daunting: four buses and four hours of commuting.

Once there, he would sleep on a couch, the same couch he's slept on the 16 years his family has lived in the apartment.

"I love this couch, it's like my best friend," he said.

The family's washing machine is outside, too big to fit in the cramped space indoors. His parents and sister share the tiny, lone bedroom in the apartment.

"My sister sleeps in this bed, my parents in the other," he said.

His parents' hard work motivates him. One day he took us to see the tiny East Los Angeles apartment, Diego's mom wasn't there. He left her a note saying he loved her.

"I always think of the struggle that my parents go through and that's what really motivates me to keep on working... to push myself to my boundaries, to my limits and really test myself here," he said.

Diego is an undocumented student. His family came to California from Mexico when he was four years old.

Not having citizenship strips Diego from many of the government programs that typically help low income, gifted students.

"I can't receive any scholarships, I don't receive work study," Diego said. "All I've wanted my entire life is just to go to school, get my degree."

He and fellow students at UCLA and across the country are pushing for legislators to pass a bi-partisan-sponsored bill called "The Dream Act" which would provide a path to citizenship for students if they graduate college.

Diego: 'I've Never Had Half A Room'

Friends who have watched Diego work hard at UCLA now watch over him, helping him at a food pantry and letting him live with them in a small room near school. Six of them cram into a two bedroom apartment, Diego stays rent free.

"I've never had half of the room, so this is an honor," Diego said.

What some may see as a humble apartment is a luxury to Diego. He has a calendar hanging on his wall, something he couldn't afford before.

Diego is aware that his citizenship status thrusts him into a roaring national debate.

"We're very intelligent individuals, we're very persistent, we're very passionate, we're driven, but we lack documentation and that's the only thing that's stopping us from achieving our dreams," he said of students who are undocumented immigrants.

Diego hopes to finish UCLA and then maybe pursue a master's in education at Harvard or Princeton.

"I'm really, really optimistic about my future," he said.

Diego faces an uncertain future, but so was the thought of college when he was young.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events