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An undocumented student's dream inspires others

By Alyse Shorland
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Competition robot's name has big meaning
  • Dulce Matuz is an undocumented graduate of Arizona State University
  • She became an activist and volunteer with her high school's robotics team
  • The students on the team named their award-winning robot for her
  • Education
  • Immigration
  • Robotics

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Phoenix, Arizona (CNN) -- Dulce Matuz is beaming, smiling from ear to ear, standing in the gym of a high school outside Phoenix, Arizona. Around her, 15 kids who should be on spring break are cheering.

Nearby is a robot, about 4 feet high, crafted from metal and stuffed with wires and circuits. It had just been announced the winner -- the top robot -- of the FIRST Robotics Arizona regional competition.

The robotics competition challenges tens of thousands of high school students to fund, design and built robot with limited materials and time -- just six weeks.

Each year, students on the robotics team at Carl Hayden Community High School name their creation after someone who inspires them.

This robot's name is Dulce's Dream, for Matuz, the 26-year-old undocumented activist, a former member of the team who still volunteers with them.

Matuz was born in 1984, in Hermosillo, Mexico, about a seven-hour drive from Phoenix. When she was 15, she came to the United States to live with her mother, who had moved here previously.

She enrolled as a sophomore at Carl Hayden, and one of her first classes was marine biology, taught by Fredi Lajvardi. At the time, Lajvardi was just starting the FIRST robotics team at the school and was looking for his first members. He showed Matuz's class a video of the competition and she was hooked.

"When he said you just needed to be willing to learn, that motivated me to go," she said. "I thought 'I am the perfect candidate. I didn't even really speak English that well.' I certainly didn't know anything about robots."

She learned to build, improved her English, and soon Matuz was expanding her role. She designed the team's website, campaigned for donations, and gave speeches. Being on Lajvardi's robotics team wasn't just about robots -- every day was a lesson in opportunities beyond Carl Hayden High School.

Meet Maria, a student on Carl Hayden's robotics team

Lajvardi puts a special emphasis on attending college. When Matuz was working on college applications during her senior year of high school, it became clear that her undocumented status could get in her way.

"I remember applying," she said, "and it wouldn't let me do that because it was online and you had to have a social security number."

Matuz learned she does not have legal residency in the United States, and she is not a citizen. The Urban Institute estimates that 65,000 students like Matuz graduate from U.S. high schools every year. There is no federal law or state prohibiting colleges, either public or private, from admitting undocumented students. But there are numerous hurdles to earn that degree.

Lajvardi and Matuz visited a recruiting counselor from Arizona State University, and in the end she was accepted. But as an undocumented student, Matuz didn't qualify for federal financial aid.

Lajvardi took Matuz to meeting after meeting, until they found private scholarships that would allow her to start at the university in fall 2003.

Matuz went on to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, but unlike a lot of her peers, it wasn't a celebratory experience for her.

"I knew there was a problem, but at the same time, everyone tells you, 'If you work hard and be a good student that things will align and work out,'" she said. "And it was true, so far, because I was able to go to college and graduate, but at the same time, I think, reality really sunk in and I got depressed because I was seeing my peers take internships or getting full-time jobs at engineering firms ... I know I was capable of getting that job but I couldn't get it because of my status."

Unable to work in engineering after graduating, Matuz continued working the real estate job she had during college.

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Organizing other undocumented students became her passion. During her crusade to attend college, she had met hundreds of other young people like herself -- she realized she wasn't alone. She started organizing other people, and together, they began campaigning for passage of the DREAM Act, a proposal to allow a path to citizenship for undocumented students after completion of a college degree or military service.

Then came the moment Matuz took a stand. She and several other students traveled from Phoenix to Washington with the goal of asking senators, in person, to put the DREAM Act back on the Senate calendar for a vote.

They chose the office of Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican whom they thought could play a key role in advancing the act. In the office, they asked for a meeting, and then sat on the floor. They stayed until 7 p.m., when the office closed. When police asked them to leave, they refused to go, and in the end Matuz and three friends spent the night in jail.

She said she doesn't regret that night.

"We did everything we could," she said. "I think I would have felt worse if I didn't get arrested because then I would have felt like, 'Oh, I should have done this and done that,' but it was also a relief because I know I did everything."

The DREAM Act failed in the last session of Congress. Recently, President Obama has made a push for "widespread movement" of immigration reform, and encouraged Congress to pass the DREAM Act.

Opinion: Obama, stop deportation of DREAM students

When the students at Carl Hayden high school heard about her arrest, they were inspired to know a former student, someone much like themselves, led a national charge for a cause. At the school, which is 94% Latino, robotics coach Lajvardi estimates that many students are undocumented, like Matuz.

"It helps maybe motivate some children that some students that we have here on campus that might be in her same situation in the future," Lajvardi said.

Current robotics team members have led marches and petitioned their legislature for reform.

"A lot of our team is aware of the situation," said team member Maria Castro, "and a lot of us, if it's not directly, [are] indirectly affected by it."

After the team won the regional competition, they moved on to the nationals in St. Louis. Matuz traveled there with the team to cheer them on. She compared having a robot named after her to winning the lottery.

"It's like a driving force and it goes in a circle," she said. "They motivate me and I hope I motivate them."

"Sometimes," she added, "we are afraid of pursuing our dreams, but Fredi [Lajvardi] said, 'You don't have to be afraid, it's a matter of how you are going to control that feeling to continue.' Am I going to let my immigration status dictate my life? Or am I going to let being afraid dictate my life?"

Her answer? Neither.