Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz ’05 Inspires John Jay Students To Reach For Their Dreams

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz ’05 Inspires John Jay Students To Reach For Their Dreams

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz ’05 Inspires John Jay Students To Reach For Their Dreams

As part of their leadership development, a group of ¡Adelante! students helped plan and execute an important event at John Jay on April 11—the homecoming of alumna Catalina Cruz ’05, a woman who grew up a Dreamer and is now a New York State Assemblywoman. “I’m sitting here remembering what it was like to apply, be accepted, and actually come to John Jay. Back then I didn’t have many choices because I was undocumented. And I wondered to myself, how can I still get a great education and help provide for my mom?” Cruz said to the crowd. “John Jay gave me a shot at getting out into the world with a good education, and a clear picture of where I wanted to go.” 

Catalina Cruz speaking at John Jay College
Cruz speaking to the crowd at John Jay

“John Jay gave me a shot of getting out into the world with a good education, and a clear picture of where I wanted to go.” —Catalina Cruz

At the event, Cruz never relied on notes or a prepared speech. Instead, she spoke straight from the heart, detailing her story—living life as an undocumented immigrant, navigating her way through John Jay, gaining her U.S. citizenship, obtaining a law degree, fighting for vulnerable communities as an attorney, and eventually winning the New York State District 39 Assembly seat. “I often say, John Jay saved my life, and I don't say that lightly. I could have been deported. I could have been a statistic. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood with very limited resources,” said Cruz. “But my mom gave me the most amazing gift—other than getting me out of Colombia and into the United States during the height of the drug war—she also gave me her savings for an entire year for my first semester at John Jay.”

Catalina Cruz at John Jay College

“I often say, John Jay saved my life, and I don't say that lightly. I could have been deported. I could have been a statistic.” —Catalina Cruz

When She Found Her Calling
Cruz considers herself very fortunate because during her junior year at John Jay, she met an attorney who helped her become a permanent resident. “After seeing what he did for me and my family, I said, that’s what I want to do. I want to be a lawyer and help families like he helped mine,” said Cruz. But the pain she encountered growing up a Dreamer didn’t go away with her newly acquired status. When the ¡Adelante! students—who were leading a panel discussion with Cruz—asked her what it was like growing up a Dreamer, the Assemblywoman took a long pause and needed to dry her eyes. “You have to fight to survive. It’s a constant struggle. I don’t remember ever working to succeed. I remember working to survive, to just live another day, to be okay another day, to just not get deported another day, to make sure that I come home and my mom is there for just another day,” said Cruz. “That’s what it’s like, and that fear, that anger at times, that desperation does not disappear when you get that piece of paper. You think it will, but I can tell you right now, it will not. My mom is a permanent resident now, and every single time she goes home to Colombia, every single time she goes through that airport, I start panicking because I don’t know if she’s going to make it through.” 

Catalina Cruz interacting with students at John Jay College

“Public servants are people who get into this business for the ability to help communities.” —Catalina Cruz

What She’s Learned Along The Way
She went on to say the that the trauma and difficulty of being formerly undocumented followed her even into her campaign. “During my campaign the slogan that my opponent had was ‘one of us.’ I was like, what are you trying to say? What does that mean for a community of immigrants you’re running to represent? Are the rest of us not good enough?” said Cruz. “That fear and anger you feel when you’re undocumented does not go away after you get citizenship. You simply have a piece of paper to fight back with.” During the Q&A portion of the event, the crowd learned that Cruz truly dislikes the term politician. “Politicians are people who get into this business for the power and the money. Public servants are people who get into this business for the ability to help communities.” They learned about her best tips for applying for internships. “Always, always, have someone else check your resume and cover letter for typos. Do not send the resume and cover letter in Word format, always a PDF, and use your connections—most of the jobs and internships I got, I got them because of connections.” And they learned why she still, even as a citizen, calls herself a Dreamer.

Catalina Cruz with ¡Adelante! team
Cruz having a light moment with the ¡Adelante! team

Why She Still Calls Herself A Dreamer
“The pain never goes away. It’s the feeling of having gone to P.S. 60 and not knowing if my mom would be there when I got home. It’s the fact that the day I got my work permit, I sat there and I ugly cried for an hour. It’s the feeling that I get when I see someone else going through the exact same problem,” said Cruz. “I do it for that reason, and because there’s political power that comes with me owning that part of my life. It was not an easy decision. I spent years hiding it from everyone. But I realized that there are so many of us, and we have a responsibility—if we’re comfortable with it—in claiming that pain because we are now in a position of privilege, where we can claim it publicly and say, this is what I’ve lived through, and I know what you’re living through, and I’m not going to let them hurt you.”

Cruz, happily surrounded by ¡Adelante! team
Cruz, happily surrounded by the ¡Adelante! team

What the Students Learned From Cruz
We chatted with the ¡Adelante! students to find out more about their experience meeting Cruz, what they hope she focuses on in her career, and what they enjoyed learning about her journey.

Serena AstudilloSerena Astudillo ’22
Major: Political Science
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Catalina is a representative of my district. I voted for her. So finding out that she was coming here, I was like, wow! And then I started really researching her. She’s Colombian-American, and I’m part Colombian. My grandfather came here from Colombia on a row boat, and then had to swim. He was undocumented and always told me about the struggles he faced. When Catalina explained her pain of growing up undocumented, and how that never leaves her, it really resonated with me. It made me think of my grandfather.

Fatima MoienFatima Moien ’22
Major: Criminal Justice
Hometown: Long Island

I’m a Muslim Pakistani immigrant. Being that I came post 9/11, it was almost natural that I was called a terrorist by our landlord. That’s something we faced, and it was terrible. Her actions helping vulnerable populations that face this type of discrimination is really amazing. This event has given me so much knowledge about all the great work that she’s has done. This is a real woman who has been through so much, and she’s making change happen. 


Fatima Moien
Fatima introducing Cruz at the event

Julio ChavezJulio Chavez ’21
Major: Political Science
Hometown: Long Island

I actually want to go into politics. I would like to go into the political arena, maybe become a political strategist and help people like Catalina win elections. I like getting all the research done. I like getting all the details right. I like the numbers, especially making sure that a politician is prioritizing the issues that are going to benefit her district and get the voters out for her. My favorite moment during the event was when she spoke about winning her election. I was imagining myself in her shoes. She’s empowered now, and she's going to make a difference in people’s lives. 

Nicaury SuarezNicaury Suarez ’21
Major: International Criminal Justice
Hometown: Bronx

I want Catalina to push the government to prioritize education more. I feel like politicians don’t prioritize education, especially in CUNY schools. It’s about getting more funding, and teaching kids to pursue what they like and what they’re passionate about. I know for myself, I am stumbling on what I like to do. I wish that when I was in high school the teachers would have focused more on that. Once I got to John Jay, that’s when I started to realize what I was good at and what I want to pursue later in life, which is public speaking. Seeing not only Catalina, but other amazing women of color pursuing the legal field and going to congress, it’s teaching me that I can do it too.

Issac AmoakoIssac Amoako ’22
Major: Police Studies 
Hometown: Bronx, New York

I’m a person of color and it’s hard for us to get into government positions. I could really relate to her story. Being a person of color, and seeing another person of color overcome these challenges, it shows me that I can overcome them too. I would like Catalina to focus on education. Not many Latinos get a good education here in New York City, and I would like her to pave the way for them to get a good education. I recently learned that the Latino graduation rate for high school and college is really low, and I would love for her to change this. 

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