She has seen her mother deported and Congress dither on the immigration program that, for now, protects her. But on Sunday, Valeria Hernandez walked across a commencement stage as salutatorian of Johnson C. Smith University's 2018 class.
Her path from homesick freshman to aspiring educator — she'll teach next year at Charlotte Latin School — left Hernandez, 22, stronger than she knew. Now she hopes for an end to the limbo that engulfs more than 800,000 children who were brought illegally into the U.S. by their parents.
President Trump wants to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which lets those immigrants work legally in the U.S. About 12 percent of North Carolina's 25,000 DACA recipients are enrolled in post-secondary education, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute reported in November.
Fewer than 1 percent of Smith's 241 graduates this year were foreign-born, but students at the historically black university aren't immune from the vagaries of immigration law.
"We live DACA, we live immigration status, we live undocumented lives in the classroom," said associate professor of political science Terza Lima-Neves, herself an immigrant from West Africa.
One undocumented student graduated Smith two years ago and is now on scholarship at Yale University, she said. Another is now a law student at Howard University.
"I've been in my office and cried with my students when their parents were deported," Lima-Neves said. "We move forward. We think about the sacrifices our parents have made for us and we move forward, and we know this country will see us through because that is what this country stands for. That is the type of community Johnson C. Smith University has built."
Hernandez was born in the poor Mexican state of Guerrero and came with her undocumented parents to the U.S. when she was about 18 months old. She grew up in Gainesville, Ga., and much of her family still lives in Georgia, although her father returned to Mexico several years ago.
In Gainesville, Hernandez was a gifted student with teachers who challenged her academically and encouraged her passion for history. At church, she led younger children in Bible study while still a high school student.
"I loved being in the classroom, loved learning," she said.
She also saw the impact teachers could have on their students — the English teacher who found a way to connect with a bright student who disliked classes; the soccer coach who also taught history and helped his charges find their way in both.
Hernandez wanted to attend college in Georgia, near family, but had a friend from Gainesville who attended Smith. She applied and was granted a full academic scholarship as a Duke Scholar.
Unused to a bigger city, faster pace and the largely black college campus, Hernandez kept to herself as a freshman. Smith's professors helped pull her out of that shell, she said, while opening her mind.
"My mom was always incredibly independent," she said. "She raised me and my sisters to be passionate, to not really think about we were supposed to do but about what we really wanted to do. Even before I knew what feminism was, I think a lot of that was instilled in me by my mom."
Then her mom, Beatriz Romero, was deported in November 2016. Hernandez doesn't want to discuss the circumstances, but said it happened as she was preparing her senior research project, which the history student had decided to tackle a year early. She paired the most stressful semester of her college career with trips to Gainesville for hearings and to help with her two younger sisters.
"My older sister contacted me and said one of the first things Mom wanted to tell me was to keep moving forward, no matter what happened to her," Hernandez said. "She wanted me to not leave school, so that really encouraged me to stick it out and keep going."
She graduated Sunday second in her class with a 4.0 grade point average. She's in regular contact with her mother, who's now living with family in Mexico.
Hernandez already has a job lined up, as one of the first two Latin Fellows at Charlotte Latin School. The program matches recent college graduates with master teachers for a year of support and training. After that, Hernandez plans to attend graduate school, probably to study political science, with hopes of teaching at the college level.
She also hopes Congress and the Trump administration will decide to grant "dreamers" like her a path to citizenship. Many others, she said, also have bottled-up potential.
Frustrated by their party's inaction on the issue, some Republican members of Congress are trying to force consideration of legislation to secure legal protection for those people. They're pitted against conservatives who oppose "amnesty" for anybody in the country illegally.
Growing up in an immigrant family, Hernandez said, accustomed her to uncertainty. Although she has a driver's license and work permit, she knows it could all be taken away. "It's a very fleeting security that we have," she said.
"Honestly, I'm kind of in the same boat as a lot of people where it's all up in the air," she said. "Growing up in an immigrant family and in a community of people of color instilled in me that you don’t really know what's going to happen, that my future was not really in my hands. I think that’s just something I've always known. There's no real way to make peace with it. It's just there."