Oscar Cornejo Casares takes things one day at a time because he has no idea what the future holds.
Cornejo Casares, a 2013 graduate of Warren Township High School and 2017 alumnus of Dartmouth College, is halfway through a 6-year Ph.D. sociology program at Northwestern University. He plans to focus his dissertation research on the psychological effects of living undocumented in America – meshing academic research with his personal life story. An aspiring professor, Cornejo Casares is a sociologist of law, race and migration.
“I think of my journey as using my personal experience and mix that in with what scholars have written,” said Cornejo Casares, who immigrated without lawful status from Mexico when he was 5 years old and has lived in the United States ever since. “I’m always thinking about things in the moment because of the impossibility right now of defining my future.”
He said his dissertation will focus heavily on interviews with undocumented immigrants and their experiences. He said it’s been a challenge to find sources who will talk on the record.
“The way things are now make it almost impossible to achieve the same dreams that my family sought when they came to this country from Mexico,” Cornejo Casares said. “I will have a Ph.D. from a top sociology program in the U.S., and even with all the privileges of American education, it seems like it will never be enough. We need to find ways to fix and implement changes to address undocumented immigration. We’re stuck on this debate regarding amnesty, having borders, or a wall--and those things are missing the entire problem. And that problem is individuals will move across these borders no matter what because the conditions – violence, economics, or otherwise – in their countries don’t support their lives.”
Cornejo Casares and colleagues from Dartmouth formed a student-led group in college to change the "illegal alien" subject heading in their school library. Their work received national attention and was debated at Congress in 2016. The effort also was highlighted in a documentary "Change the Subject" that has been featured in 60-some screenings across the world, including the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. Plans are in the works for the documentary to be shown at Dartmouth (a second screening), University of Florida, Virginia Law Association, Indiana University in the coming months, Cornejo Casares said.
“We are always trying to get the film out there further into the world and share its powerful message with as many people as possible,” Cornejo Casares said. “We’re trying to bring the film to the next level commercially.”
Cornejo Casares, 25, said his life changed dramatically after becoming part of the Schuler Scholar Program while a freshman at Warren Township. Since 2001, the Lake Forest-based Schuler Scholar Program has partnered with more than 1,400 scholars – including mostly first-generation students, students of color and low-income students – and sent them to highly selective colleges and universities.
Of the 1,500-plus scholars, 93 percent complete an undergraduate degree at the country’s top liberal arts colleges and universities. That includes Cornejo Casares, who earned a full scholarship to Dartmouth. Cornejo Casares said, if he hadn’t been part of the Schuler Program, he wouldn’t have known when to even apply to college or known what the ACT was.
“The Schuler program provided me with counseling, mentorship and learning opportunities that I never would have had otherwise,” Cornejo Casares said. “Before joining the program, I had actually thought you didn’t apply for college until after you graduated high school.”
When he was 5 years old, Cornejo Casares and his younger brother crossed the border in the backseat of a car driven by a smuggler who pretended to be their mother at the San Ysidro entry point near Tijuana/San Diego. Their mother and father came to the U.S. separately through different points and different times.
“It was very risky,” said Cornejo Casares, whose family eventually reunited in San Diego, then Ventura, California, before arriving in the Chicago area and settling in Park City, Illinois.
Since its first partnership with Waukegan High School nearly two decades ago, the Schuler Scholar Program has teamed with fifteen Chicago and Chicago-area high schools since its founding, and expanded to Milwaukee last year. The program has invested more than $100 million since 2001 to support its Scholars.
“The program provided me with a kind of lighthouse that helped guide me through rough waters,” Cornejo Casares said. “It gave me access to resources and development opportunity that my family never possessed.”
For more information on “Change the Subject,” visit https://video.vermontpbs.org/video/change-the-subject-23nbpj/
For more information on the Schuler Scholar Program, visit https://www.schulerprogram.org/