Through life changes and obstacles, a master’s student perseveres

DACA recipient Javier Diego Jacinto earns master’s degree, sets sights on making an impact for fellow undocumented students through research.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024
SDSU graduate Javier Diego Jacinto photographed at the campus
Javier Diego Jacinto aims to a positive difference for future undocumented students through research and impact education policy.

Sunday will mark Javier Diego Jacinto’s second Commencement ceremony as a San Diego State University student. Since crossing the stage at Petco Park in 2021 to receive his bachelor’s in liberal studies, much has changed for him.

He started a family.

He shifted the focus of his academic journey.

And — empowered by his experience as an SDSU graduate student — he walks a little taller.

“A lot of times in my journey, I've been ashamed of being bilingual, ashamed of being brown, ashamed of being Mazateco (indigenous) and ashamed of being undocumented,” Diego Jacinto said. "Thankfully now, because of the privilege of going into higher education and learning about these things, I feel like I'm relearning how to love my culture again.”

Diego Jacinto is undocumented, studying in the U.S. as a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — a policy that allows some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to avoid deportation and live, work and receive an education in the country legally. He was only 6 when he was brought to the U.S. by his parents from an Indigenous community in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. They immigrated seeking opportunity for their family — dreams their son has worked hard to realize. 

The first member of his family to attend college, Diego Jacinto will receive a master’s degree in postsecondary educational leadership and student affairs (PELSA). 

Originally planning to be a bilingual teacher, he has since shifted gears. The goal now is to earn a Ph.D. and make a positive difference for future generations of undocumented students through research that he hopes will impact education policy.

“There's just not that much research out there focused on enhancing the undocumented experience,” Diego Jacinto said. “There are a lot of incredible allies out there doing great work that has inspired me so much. However they do come from a status where they have citizenship. 

“I believe that we need to have representation in who is putting out the work and the perspectives that are shared.”

The research Diego Jacinto conducted as a PELSA student whetted his appetite for more exploration. Equally profound was his work as a community outreach and engagement coordinator for SDSU’s Developing Effective Bilingual Educators with Resources Project (DEBER) project, which supports future bilingual teachers along a pathway from community college to earning a bilingual teaching credential at SDSU.

“The DEBER community was really welcoming to me and I quickly transitioned to where I felt like I belonged,” said Diego Jacinto, who himself was a transfer from Southwestern College.

“Whenever I spoke up to make recommendations, they treated me like a colleague or an expert, more than just a student. That really gave confidence when it came to speaking and creating opportunities for our Latino, Latina and undocumented students.”

As he navigated graduate school, Diego Jacinto also experienced another life milestone. He got married and, in 2022, his wife Wan Ou Diego-Li gave birth to their first child, named Aliyah HuiYi in honor of her parents’ Mazateco and Taiwanese cultures. Their second daughter, named Cathleen HuiXin, is due in June.

Javier admits balancing his academic pursuits with the responsibilities of starting a family was a learning experience. But he is grateful for the support he received along the way.

“Thankfully, PELSA being a very social justice-driven, equity-focused program allowed me to have conversations with my professors,” he said. “If I needed a couple of extra days to be able to turn in an assignment, I had the capacity to do so. My classmates, in particular, were so supportive of this new transition for me.”

Asked what he’s most proud of as he prepares to cross the Commencement stage for a second time, Diego Jacinto said not giving up in the face of challenges. 

And as he basks in the big day, the son of a landscaper and former housekeeper from Oaxaca will no doubt think of his parents — and how he, in that moment, is the embodiment of their wildest dreams. 

“My mom always reminds me when I feel like giving up, remember where we come from,” Diego Jacinto said. “We're from a small town. She never imagined her son would graduate from a master's program in the U.S.

“That has always helped me ground myself.”

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