By Tina Cormier
Anyone can give up, but some find a way keep going, whether it’s in spite of—or perhaps because of—the challenges they face. David Liendo Uriona ’14 has faced many in his journey from unaccompanied, undocumented teen to White House honoree.
In July, Uriona and nine other “DACAmented Teachers” received the White House Champion of Change Award. Uriona is one of over 600,000 undocumented immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program that provides work permits and exemption from deportation to some who arrived in the United States as children. The award is given to teachers who are outstanding leaders inside the classroom, in the lives of their students and within their communities.
Uriona grew up in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where he helped his mother care for his younger siblings. Neither of his parents attended college, and there were few opportunities for quality education and careers.
“My mother always told us to work hard and that education was the key to a better future,” Uriona recalled.
At age 14, he traveled to the United States for a karate tournament, and he never looked back. Arriving on a visa, he immediately enrolled in high school. Alone—and facing a new language, culture, and people—he excelled. When his visa expired, he quickly realized the difficulties of living in the United States without documentation. He felt hopeless, like he had left his family for a dream that he would never achieve. His options were limited; he would probably have to go into construction like most others in his situation.
But that life was not for him.
“I am a nerd. I love to study. I love books,” Uriona admitted.
Fortunately, one of his teachers recognized both his struggle and his potential. Cornell alumna Stacia Becker ‘98, was not willing to let Uriona walk away from his gifts. She told him that being undocumented did not define him and offered her help. She sent him on a trip to visit Cornell, where she felt he would thrive and reach his potential.
She was right. Uriona received several scholarships to study Biology and Society in the College of Agriculture and Life Science, with minors Nutrition and Health and Science and Technology Studies. An honors student, member of the Cornell Nature Society, and student ambassador, Uriona took every advantage of his time at Cornell. He described his experience as one of the most challenging times of his life, but one that prepared him for life outside of school.
“I empowered myself at Cornell,” he said.
After graduating in 2014, Uriona joined Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit organization whose mission is to help underprivileged students. He teaches at High Tech Early College in Denver, Colorado, where he established the school’s first National Honor Society and Spanish National Honor Society.
“I am here to give back to my community,” Uriona said. “I didn’t get here the easy way, and I am so thankful for the support of my teachers along the way.”
His tireless and inspirational work with TFA is what earned him the President’s award last month. What is the secret to his success? He knows firsthand the hardships that undocumented and minority students face. He hasn’t seen his family in over nine years. His siblings are grown up; his parents are older. But he continues to push forward to inspire his students.
“Your dreams are valuable and you need to reach for them,” he tells them. “Sometimes you need to risk everything, as much as it hurts.”