Yuriana Aguilar sits at her microscope in a biomedical lab at UC Merced that studies sudden cardiac death.

Yuriana Aguilar sits at her microscope in a biomedical lab at UC Merced that studies sudden cardiac death. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

This story was originally published on May 23, 2016.

UPDATE: Since this story first aired, Yuriana Aguilar is now a postdoc in Chicago, continuing her cardiovascular research. She says she’s currently feeling very insecure about the fate of undocumented students like her once President-elect Trump takes office.

Have you ever seen a beating heart, pulsing on its own for hours, outside of the body? I got to see one last week, after it had been removed from a mouse.

“You can see that it’s still beating,” says 26-year-old Yuriana Aguilar, a newly minted Ph.D. in a white lab coat. “It’s a very impressive organ.”

Aguilar is injecting a special dye into the heart, so she can look at the electrical signaling going on in the membrane of each cell. She’s a researcher in a biomedical lab at UC Merced, the University of California’s newest campus. She’s also the first undocumented student to get her doctorate at UC Merced.

Aguilar is looking at mouse hearts to figure out what happens in the human heart just before sudden cardiac death, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Professor Ariel Escobar, who runs the lab, says Aguilar is the best student he’s ever taught.

“She presented her work at the Biophysical Society meeting. She was the only student in that session. They were all full professors and chairmen of departments, and her!” he exclaims. “She’s superb, superb!”

But Aguilar’s future is uncertain. She came to California from Mexico with her farmworker parents when she was 5. None of them have immigration papers.

“Everybody has the American dream,” Aguilar says. “They think, ‘We’re going to strive, we’re going to have our own homes, our own businesses.’ My parents have not been better off economically. But they see the American dream fulfilling in me. That keeps me going.”

Aguilar has worked her way through school picking watermelons, cleaning hotels and selling produce at flea markets.

“There are fears. I fear that if I’m in the flea market, and they’re doing deportations or something, nobody’s going to care that I have a title,” she says.

Yuriana Aguilar with her family in their squash field: (L-R) Arturo Aguilar, Yuriana and her daughter Victoria, Ana Torres, and Yuriana's husband, Ismael. Yuriana is the first undocumented student to graduate with a Ph.D. from UC Merced.
Yuriana Aguilar with her family in their squash field: (L-R) Arturo Aguilar, Yuriana and her daughter Victoria, Ana Torres, and Yuriana’s husband, Ismael. Yuriana is the first undocumented student to graduate with a Ph.D. from UC Merced. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

As an undergraduate, Aguilar wasn’t eligible for many grants and scholarships. Her parents sold enchiladas and vegetables to help pay her costs. Once she got her bachelor’s degree, she was working as an unpaid volunteer in the lab when the Obama administration announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

“I remember, I was here in the lab when I was watching the news about DACA. I cried,” she says. “I was here with the heart, so that was very emotional. To see that I could actually do this, that it would allow me to continue to work here.”

DACA allowed Aguilar to get a temporary work permit. She has to renew it every two years, but has no path to permanent legal status. Without that, she can’t apply for a lot of government grants and fellowships. She also can’t travel to visit the scientists she’s collaborated with in Brazil, Spain and Argentina.

“When you don’t have papers, you are very limited. But science just doesn’t have borders. That’s very impressive to me. They don’t exist because that would limit the advancement of technologies and how much progress we’re making in the field,” Aguilar says.

An article about her in the local Merced Sun-Star newspaper prompted a number of readers to write in, saying she shouldn’t be at the university taking the space of a U.S. citizen, or that she should be deported. I asked her how she felt about that.

“You know, you get discouraged, but I am used to hearing those comments. There are shortages of researchers and physicians. Definitely, if somebody’s more qualified, go for it,” says Aguilar. “We all compete for the same spots.”

“She hasn’t taken anybody’s spot. She earned that,” says Alex Delgadillo, who runs a special office at UC Merced  to help undocumented students, and to train faculty and staff about how to assist them.

“Yuriana came here as an undergraduate, distinguished herself at her high school, she continued and excelled, did research here,” says Delgadillo. “She was up against competitive candidates, and she distinguished herself in that regard, just like any competitive candidate has to meet the rigorous requirements of a UC.”

Serving low-income immigrant students is core to UC Merced’s mission. About two-thirds of its students are the first in their family to go to college, and many are immigrants, like Aguilar. UC President Janet Napolitano recently earmarked $8.4 million to expand support for undocumented students across the UC system.

How Did Two Farmworkers Put Five Kids Through College?

After working at the lab, Aguilar drives with her husband and 1-year-old daughter, Victoria, to visit her parents on their farm in West Fresno. It’s right in the heart of one the most impoverished ZIP codes in the state.

Her parents rent a plot of land to raise goats and grow squash and cucumbers they sell at markets in San Jose.

Yuriana’s mother, Ana Torres, is a tough lady. She climbs a tall metal fence and leaps down into the goat pen to help a 3-day-old goat nurse on the mama goat she calls Bambi.

Ana Torres shows off a baby goat to her daughter Yuriana and granddaughter Victoria.
Ana Torres shows off a baby goat to her daughter Yuriana and granddaughter Victoria. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

“I have to be tough,” she tells me in Spanish. “I raised five kids, and they’re all getting their degrees.”

Tending the goats and picking zucchini has destroyed Torres’ fancy manicure. She normally doesn’t get her nails done, she tells me, but two of her children graduated this week — Yuriana with her doctorate, and a son as a pilot.

I ask Torres and her husband, Arturo Aguilar, what their secret is. How did two farmworker parents who didn’t finish elementary school put five kids through college?

“We’d talk to them a lot, tell them they’re smart,” says Arturo. “And we would pay them $20 for every A and B they got. They had to pay us $25 or $30 if they got an F. We had to work harder to earn more money if they got A’s, but it was worth it.”

And if they didn’t do a good job in school, they had to do longer shifts on the farm, picking spiny cactus. Ana and Arturo say they were tough on their kids, but loving, present, involved.

Farmworkers Arturo Aguilar and Ana Torres have put their five children through college, including Yuriana, UC Merced's first undocumented Ph.D.
Farmworkers Arturo Aguilar and Ana Torres have put their five children through college, including Yuriana, UC Merced’s first undocumented Ph.D. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Arturo says a lot of immigrants come from Mexico wanting to buy fancy trucks or cars. “But the best investment you can make is your children’s education,” he says. “A car or truck only stays new and shiny for a while. But a child’s education lasts their whole life.”

Ana Torres starts to cry as she tells me how proud she is of her daughter getting her Ph.D. She walks over to hug her.

“I am crying, but they’re happy tears,” says Torres. “Before, I was crying tears of sadness. Especially when Yuriana would call me to tell me that people cared more about her documents than about her intelligence or her perseverance in getting ahead.”

“Thank you for believing in me,” says Yuriana, “even though there were so many obstacles in our way. I remember you always told me that no one can take away your education. The government may not give you papers, but they can’t take away your learning.”

“That’s right,” says Torres. “I always told you that learning lasts you your whole life. It’s the only inheritance you’re going to get from us, and as long as we have feet to stand on and hands to work, we’re going to support you.”

Yuriana Aguilar says she hopes to open her own medical research lab. She’s got faith that somehow she’ll find a path to citizenship. But even then, she won’t mind working in the fields sometimes — or even buying a lot of land to farm someday. You have to do every job with dignity, she says, and with your heart.

Undocumented Ph.D. Makes History at UC Merced 30 December,2016Sasha Khokha
  • Wastrel Way

    This is absolutely wonderful, and this young lady has good reason to be proud of her accomplishment. There might even be 10 or 20 more undocumented aliens who have accomplished similar feats, out of the 11 million, 15 million or 40 million undocumented aliens (depending who you believe. I think the last figure includes all those who received amnesty.) Now, she can go home and improve the standard of living and medical care in her country.

  • Brent

    Sovereignty, how does it work? rewarded for breaking the law, how quaint.

    • litespeed74

      debbie downer here! get your debbie downer!

      • Brent

        Laws, how do they work?

        • Abby

          Human compassion, how does that work?

          The emphasis on law and order suggests a limited understanding of universal ethics and the inherent value of people.

          May you never be in a position where laws meant to maintain certain social contracts, interfere with your capacity to live to your potential as a human and to exercise the right to develop, learn, and be a productive member of society. But if you are ever in such a position, may you never encounter views like your own.

          • Brent

            So how many illegals do you plan on taking into your home and supporting? Or is it just you are generous with other peoples things? Maybe we should be showing compassion to our citizens in need first. Like the homeless and vets?

          • Guest

            They are working and supporting themselves.

          • Brent

            are there unicorns in your world too?

          • Abroche Su Cinturon

            You are full of the richest brown stuff, senor.

          • MarcoPolo77

            Get an education before trying to be snarky. You and your buddies are acting like fools!!!

          • Die.Leit

            Most of the world lives like this. You ought to move out as a gesture to make room for the millions in the slums of India. Overpopulating the US will not solve the problems of the third world.

  • Skip Conrad

    Admirable. But wouldn’t it be nice if this talented individual could be involved in improving public health in her own nation. Our predatory brain-drain policies have the dual danger of depriving other nations of their best, while keeping our own down by flooding the talent pool.

  • kronnyj

    These folks are better Americans than half of the people I know born here. They work harder and don’t expect anyone to give them anything. We must work to improve the immigration process to allow hard working people an easier path to citizenship.

    • Abroche Su Cinturon

      Caca de Vaca Grande, senor

    • Kurt thialfad

      Yuriana admits: ” My parents have not been better off economically.”

  • BundyGil

    The US is full of idiots. Just as well there’s some undocumented immigrants to counter their stupidity.
    The US is on the downward spiral to irrelevancy. Another 30 years and it will no longer be a world power, 10 if Trump wins the presidency

    • Abroche Su Cinturon

      Caca de vaca, BundyGil.

      • MarcoPolo77

        SMH. Spanish doesn’t have the same insults as English does.

    • Die.Leit

      As soon as the US abandoned its European heritage and started trying to run the world, with new leadership from central Europe, we started the downward trend. Run for the hills and take your illegals with you.

  • Donald Wood

    it should be easy to get in legally and I don’t know why it is not, but imo if you are not legal you get nothing.

  • Abroche Su Cinturon

    This sounds a lot like the children who murdered their parents, then pleaded for sympathy because they’re orphans.

  • Ryan

    Wonderful article. Congratulations to Ms. Aguilar for making the best of her family’s sacrifice to better herself, become empowered via education, and find ways to give back to the society which she has grown up in. While she might not have come to this country ordinarily or legally, there is no factor which can negate her accomplishments and achievements.

    I doubt that many of you who would criticize this young woman have any post-grad education. I doubt, in fact, that many of you have even started, let alone finished college. I have to wonder if seeing an undocumented illegal immigrant rise above poverty, excel in science, and become a valuable member of the community has sparked any jealousy among you.

    • Die.Leit

      Don’t worry, preacher… some of us do have advanced degrees. It is not jealousy, but illegality that bothers me, personally. Our country does not need an ocean of semi-literate latrinos, irrespective of whether 1 ppm gets a degree in something other than ethnic studies. I am tired of the lies in the media about “doing it on their own,” when in fact there are a number of county and state programs that provide transfers of public money to illegals and their anchor babies or sympathy-based pseudo-legal kids. 5 kids? Are you kidding me? There is no way this family made enough to fund that. One would need to have gone to school with these cultural enrichers to understand the problems.

  • Norm Wilson

    Mr. and Mrs. Aguilar, you have done an absolutely exceptional job raising your children! Congratulations, your hard work has paid off.

  • Die.Leit

    There should be a frank statement in this propaganda about whether indeed this family of illegals received transfers from the government. WIC? School lunches? Obviously, we don’t need to count public schools.

  • Gb

    If we all were in the same position of most of these people coming here illegal, we would brake the law to provide a better living for our family. I know I would! These parents did a great job that leaves most of us in shame. Look at our merced citizens, born American citizens. How many are worthless to our society? How long have they been getting free handouts? And they keep breeding the same . Wake up USA ! That’s what we need to fix.

  • crissyfield

    There is a lot missing from this story. Does not add up at all. This family has money, lots of it.

  • MarcoPolo77

    Are people in here aware that illegal immigrants do not qualify for welfare or food stamps? Not even citizens can get welfare unless they have a child under the age of 18. Can people commenting here be any more stupid?


Sasha Khokha

Sasha Khokha is the host of The California Report  weekly magazine program, which takes listeners on sound-rich radio excursions around the Golden State.

As The California Report's Central Valley Bureau Chief for nearly a dozen years, Sasha brought the lives and concerns of rural Californians to listeners around the state. Sasha's reporting helped exposed the hidden price immigrant women janitors and farmworkers may pay to keep their jobs: sexual assault at work -- and helped change California law with regard to sexual harassment of farmworkers.  She's won a national PRNDI award for investigative reporting, as well as multiple prizes from the Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

She began her radio career in waterproof overalls, filing stories about the salmon fishery at Raven Radio in Sitka, AK. She has produced and reported for several documentary films. Calcutta Calling, about children adopted from India to Swedish-Lutheran Minnesota, was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Sasha is  a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and is the mother of two young children.