Removing the Mask: Former Undocumented Student Hopes Sharing Her Background Will Help as Coordinator of the Multicultural Business Program

Yeseania Beas and volunteers from the Multicultural Business Program, outside the Orfalea Colege of Business building.

Yesenia Beas speaks with volunteers from the Multicultural Business Program. (Photo: Jack Sann)

Written by July 11, 2023

As an undocumented child in Guadalupe, Calif, Yesenia Beas was afraid to tell friends or school staffers about her status, unsure whom she could trust.

“I don’t even think my teachers in elementary or junior high really understood the level of stress you would feel even trying to open up to them and sharing your story a little,” Beas said. “Because you think, ‘Is this person going to be supportive or not? Are they going to hurt me, or are they going to help me?’”

While she kept her secret until she was in college, Beas, now a resident seeking citizenship, said she is happy to share her experiences with students as a new academic advisor and coordinator of Cal Poly’s Multicultural Business Program (MBP), which provides students with professional support and resources to help them persist toward graduation.

Yesenia Beas, posting for a portrait in front of a cacti garden.

Having grown up undocumented in Guadalupe, Calif., Yesenia Beas thinks she will be able to relate and empathize with students as the head of the Multicultural Business Program. (Photo: Jack Sann)

“All of the identities I carry definitely help in terms of being able to relate to a lot of student struggles,” said Beas, noting that each student will have their own unique challenge. “My hope is that I can gain students’ trust so that they too can open up to me and share things that maybe they wouldn’t share with others so that I can help them out.”

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Beas and her family moved to Guadalupe when she was five years old. Her father worked as a handyman, and her mother cleaned houses.

“I think Guadalupe is very similar to Mexico in the sense that it’s poorly funded and it’s a very small town with very few people,” Beas said, “which is nice because you kind of get to know everyone in the town.”

While her parents didn’t speak English, they would sit at the dinner table with her and try to help her with homework they didn’t understand. Her school staff was supportive, but Beas was always cautious about revealing too much about herself.

“Your parents teach you when you’re very young, ‘Don’t disclose,’” she said. “’Don’t share with anyone unless you really have to – or come talk to me before you say anything.’”

When her seventh grade class visited Washington, D.C., Beas stayed home, fearing she would be discovered as undocumented and deported. And in high school, she didn’t think she could attend college since out-of-state tuition would apply.

Yesenia Beas, posting for a portrait at the Matter Belong Persist Conference

Yesenia Beas, at the Matter Belong Persist Conference, put on by the Multicultural Business Program last spring. (Photo: Pat Pemberton)

While the 2011 California Dream Act allowed undocumented students to receive financial aid and pay in-state tuition, many high schools lack resources or training to help eligible undocumented students apply for college. As a result, only 14 percent of undocumented students in the state receive any form of financial aid for higher education, according to the California Student Aid Commission.

Eventually, Beas attended Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, where she and three other undocumented students shared similar stories and decided to pursue a dream center that would support students like themselves. Eventually, AIM to Dream, partially modeled after Cal Poly’s Dream Center, would advocate for undocumented students who want to pursue higher education.

After two years at Allan Hancock, Beas transferred to Cal Poly, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then a master’s degree in higher education counseling and student affairs.

My hope is that I can gain students’ trust so that they too can open up to me and share things that maybe they wouldn’t share with others so that I can help them out.Yesenia Beas

As a transfer student, Beas didn’t feel as connected to campus as her peers who had already attended Cal Poly for a couple of years. And she didn’t always feel she fit in.

If white friends asked her what her favorite TV show was, she didn’t tell them about the Spanish shows she regularly watched. Or if her boyfriend (now husband) picked her up while playing Spanish music in the car, she would hide her face.

“Now it’s really funny, but in the moment, I felt a sense of shame, which I had never felt in my entire life,” she said. “Most of my friends at Cal Poly were white, and I had to put on that mask.”

Spending time at Cal Poly’s Dream Center and the Educational Opportunity Program helped her be her authentic self, she said, as did working as a resident advisor.  She would also work as a graduate assistant for the Dream Center before joining the Orfalea College of Business as a graduate assistant in the Career Readiness Center.

At the Multicultural Business Program, she replaces Yovani Alexander, who oversaw the program for the three years.

Yesenia Beas, posting for a portrait.

Yesenia Beas earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cal Poly after transferring from Allan Hancock College. (Photo: Jack Sann)

Alexander said Beas’s passion for helping students from different backgrounds – along with her empathy and understanding — make for an excellent fit.

“She is very kind and giving to those around her,” Alexander said. “Her values align with MBP’s mission.”

Alexander has helped maintain MBP’s strong connection with industry while overseeing increased funding for the program itself.

“It has been such a joy to be part of this community, and I know Yesenia will continue to move the MBP forward,” Alexander said.

While it took some effort to end up at Cal Poly – first as a student and now an employee —  Beas said the journey was worthwhile.

“Reflecting back on it now, I think I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” she said. “Because the path I took to get my degree was a really beautiful one, and I learned a lot along the way.”

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