I still remember the first time I put on my white coat. It was an October night in 2017, and along with 119 other nursing students in identical blue scrubs, I’d come to the Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, for a white coat ceremony. With 300 friends and family members watching, we crossed the stage to receive our coats, then recited the Nightingale Pledge, vowing to devote ourselves to our patients’ welfare.
The ceremony, which marked the start of our clinical training, was simple but deeply meaningful. Afterward I went to celebrate with my family and friends. Since I was little, I’d dreamed of helping others. My white coat meant I’d made it. Soon I’d be a real nurse, treating real patients.
Then I got home and checked Facebook, and my happiness evaporated. At the top of my feed was an article warning that the Arkansas State Board of Nursing had begun denying nursing licenses to DACA recipients.
That meant me. I’m a Dreamer, born in Mexico and brought to America at age six. I feel American, but don’t have an unrestricted legal status, so the new policy meant I wouldn’t be able to work as a nurse. Even though I was halfway through my education, there was no road forward.
As I read the article, the world seemed to move in slow motion. In that moment everything changed. I felt my dream shatter.
I’m the oldest in my family, and my two brothers always looked up to me. After my parents separated, my mom worked three jobs to support us. While she worked in restaurants or cleaned houses, I picked up after them, fed them snacks, and became the household second-in-command.
It was tough, but my mom never let go of her dream: to give us a good life and a good education. She succeeded. I’m the first in my family to graduate from high school and the first to earn an associate’s degree. When I finish nursing school next December, I’ll be the first to earn a bachelor’s degree too.
That’s been possible because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows Dreamers to work and study without fear of deportation. Getting DACA in 2012 changed my life, letting me take jobs in restaurants and other local businesses, save money, and plan for college.
Even with DACA I didn’t qualify for financial aid, scholarships, or student loans, so I worked my way through community college. My real dream was to study medicine. As a child, my eyes would fill with tears during TV ads for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, longing to help the sick children I saw. I knew I couldn’t afford medical school, but I found I could afford a nursing degree and that was close enough.
The more I learned about nursing, the more I felt sure I’d discovered what I was meant to be. Later, during my clinical training, I had a light bulb moment while working in the emergency room, suddenly aware that I felt a sense of belonging amid the adrenaline. I knew then I wanted to be an E.R. nurse.
Our country needs more young people to have those light bulb moments and become nurses. According to the Arkansas Department of Health, all but one of our state’s counties are suffering health care worker shortages. More than half a million Arkansans live in areas with too few primary medical, dental, and mental health workers.
Often it’s immigrants like me who fill those gaps. Research from New American Economy shows that 27.7 percent of physicians and 15.8 percent of nurses are born abroad. Almost 14,000 Dreamers work in health care jobs, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But that number could be far higher. Just 11 states allow DACA recipients to gain professional licenses, so like me, many thousands of aspiring health care workers find it impossible to achieve their dreams.
A week after my white coat ceremony, my program director gave me two choices: withdraw from the program, or keep studying with no promise that I’d ever work as a nurse close to home. Go home, they urged me. Think it over.
But I’d already spent a week thinking. Everything I’d worked for had led me to this point. God wouldn’t have brought me this far if this wasn’t the right career for me, I thought. “I’m staying,” I announced. Nursing was my calling, and I wasn’t going to give it up just because I was born in Mexico.
Still, achieving my dream would require more than just self-belief. I had been involved with my school’s Student Nurses’ Association chapter as a representative, coordinating volunteers as well as volunteering myself. Later that same month in October 2017, I attended the state convention to spread the word about my situation. Before I knew it, I’d been elected to the Arkansas Nursing Students’ Association board of directors.
That gave me a golden opportunity to share my story. I explained to my fellow students how my dreams had been snatched away and how Arkansas barred Dreamers from becoming nurses. Many of my fellow representatives were shocked to hear about the plight of DACA students. Over the next few months, we prepared a resolution to present at the National Student Nurses’ Association convention. Soon I found myself in front of a microphone at Nashville, asking thousands of my fellow students and faculty for their support. As I spoke, the room fell silent. I’ve never been a public speaker, but I did my best, speaking straight from the heart. My voice cracked, and I felt tears running down my cheeks. But I kept speaking my truth.
By the time I finished, there was a roaring in my ears. I turned away, panicking, thinking I’d failed. But my fellow board members told me to look back, and I saw the whole ballroom was on their feet, applauding. It was like nothing I’d seen before, and when we finally voted, the resolution passed unanimously.
It didn’t stop there. After an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the situation for Dreamer nursing students caught the attention of Representative Megan Godfrey, a first-term state representative from Springdale. Godfrey is a Democrat, but she recognized that nursing isn’t a partisan issue. Along with Republican colleagues, she drafted legislation that allowed Dreamers to take the licensing exam. Our bill passed the House unopposed, then breezed through the Senate—a reminder that health care is something people of every political stripe can get behind.
This April I wept again watching Governor Asa Hutchinson sign our bill into law. After a year and a half of work, I’d helped change Arkansas for the better. Change is coming across the country too. In 2016, Nebraska voted to let Dreamers become nurses. Last year Indiana did the same, and similar legislation is gaining steam in South Carolina.
Those successes come as Dreamers face an uncertain future. DACA is under threat, and without congressional action many of us could face deportation. But after seeing Republicans and Democrats come together in Arkansas, I’m hopeful that our national leaders will put their differences aside and make the right decision for Dreamers and the communities that need them.
After all, DACA is really a way to allow Dreamers to contribute to their communities. We aren’t American on paper, but we’re American in our hearts and souls, and we’re united by a desire to give something back.
For me, that means putting on my white coat and going to work as a licensed nurse, taking care of patients here in the United States. I won’t have much longer to wait. Next December I’ll take the nursing exam and start serving my community. It will be the end of a long journey, and the start of a whole new adventure. I’m determined to make the most of it, because if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that in America, you should never give up on living your dreams.
Rosa Ruvalcaba Serna is a nursing student at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Originally Appeared on Glamour