The summer of 2009 was one of the scariest times of my life. I should have been excited about heading to Northwestern University on a scholarship. Instead, I struggled to sleep. As a first-generation Chinese immigrant with a precarious immigration status, my future rested on my academic performance. I didn’t have safety nets if I fell short.
I was born in the historic city of Nanjing, China. My family was not particularly wealthy, but we were established in society and considered an “intellectual” clan.
“Nothing is more important than learning,” declares an ancient Chinese saying, underscoring the pervasive Chinese belief that education is foundational to self-development and success. That pressure is heightened by intense competition among millions of students vying for limited spots at Chinese universities and prestigious universities abroad.
In fourth grade, I immigrated to the United States to join my mom, who had moved there five years earlier in 1994. My mom struggled to learn English in her 30s, but she persisted and completed a master’s degree. Her education helped her land a job immediately after graduating, which led to a dependent visa for me. She did it all for me, and I wanted to make her proud.
After overcoming significant language and cultural barriers, I caught up in my American school and began to excel. I wasn’t the smartest kid around, but I studied hard to honor my family. I thought that if I got good grades and got into a good college, then a good life would follow.
My mom and I came from an atheist family, but by God’s grace, we experienced biblical hospitality and heard the gospel from a few Americans who ultimately led us to Christ. Still, while I pronounced Jesus as my personal Savior, I didn’t yet make him my Lord—my hope and identity still largely rested in achieving my dreams through education.
Those dreams were shattered just a few short years later when we learned that our immigration attorney had made mistakes on our paperwork, jeopardizing both my and my single mom’s status. At age 12, I found myself without proper documentation. In the following years, I would learn that designation came with prohibitions on driving, working, and attending college. Financial aid was out of the question.
I remember crying and asking my mom, “What is the point of studying so hard if I can’t even go to a good college?”
She responded, “You don’t study hard for an acceptance letter, you study hard as unto God. If God wants you at Harvard or any school, it won’t matter if you don’t have status or if your single mom doesn’t have enough money. He will make a way.”
Today, my mom says she still cannot believe that those words came out of her mouth, because she did not actually have a way out of our predicament. In reality, she was considering returning to China. But she trusted in God. Looking back, it is clear to me that the Holy Spirit was speaking through my mom to reassure us of who is ultimately in control.
I had been a Christian for several years, but I continued to find my purpose in academic performance and striving to reach my dreams. My plans were not inherently wrong, but I had made idols of achievement and success. I cared about results, while God examined my heart and intentions. I was certainly not studying as worship unto God.
Destroying My Idols
I graduated among the top of my high school class and begrudgingly enrolled in my local community college. The school, which did not discriminate based on legal status, seemed like my only option for post-secondary education. God used the experience to humble and inspire me.
Once I got over my pride and misconceptions about community college, I cherished my education and the people I met there. Two years later, after receiving an associate’s degree, I began applying to universities as a transfer student—just to give it a shot. I was fully prepared for rejection based on my immigration status. One school simply told me not to come.
In the spring of 2009, Northwestern University accepted my transfer application even after I shared my situation with two university officials. Still, we were unable to afford tuition with my mom’s salary, and my immigration status meant that I could not receive financial aid or take out loans. God provided again through a generous scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which didn’t inquire into my status as long as I was officially enrolled in an accredited institution.
I was overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude at the news of university acceptance and scholarship funding. After years of doubting, closing my mind off to possibilities, and feeling hopeless, I could hardly take it all in. I read and reread my acceptance letter and the scholarship handbook, savoring the moment.
Then it hit me. To keep the scholarship, I needed to maintain a certain GPA. If I got a C, I could be put on academic probation and possibly lose the scholarship. If I lost the scholarship, as I understood, I might need to pay back potentially tens of thousands of dollars of tuition expenses—money that we did not have. If I dropped out of school, I had no other option for university because of my legal status.
I didn’t expect to get a C, but life had already proven unpredictable. I didn’t know how hard Northwestern classes would be for me after transitioning from community college. I panicked and started to imagine all that could possibly go wrong.
I get this one shot—a miracle really—which is not afforded to many of my fellow immigrants, let alone those undocumented, and I’m going to blow it, I thought. I will disappoint God and bring so much shame to myself and my family.
The summer before I transferred to Northwestern, I had recurring nightmares about all that could go wrong. The fear of failure felt even more unbearable than the fear of having my immigration status exposed, which is particularly stigmatized in Asian American immigrant communities.
My mom noticed that I was struggling and asked me what was wrong. When I told her my fears, she responded: “Just do your best. Don’t worry about grades. If you work hard and things don’t go as planned, I’ll take on side jobs. I can waitress and tutor.”
My mother—a Chinese woman facing her own immigration hurdles and who held a master’s degree—was willing to waitress for me. She would go with me into whatever struggles were ahead and help me carry the burden.
I’ll never forget what she said next. “If, after your very best effort, you get a C or you somehow have to drop out of school, I’m okay with that,” she said. “I won’t be less proud of you.”
Putting on a New Self
I knew my mom loved me, but I didn’t fully comprehend the unconditional nature of her love until that moment. I didn’t need to perform to attain her love, and my poor performance couldn’t rob me of it.
It wasn’t just that she was willing to sacrifice for me that meant so much to me. I finally understood that I didn’t have to be something or someone in order for my mom to deem her sacrifices worthwhile. She loved me for myself, not for what potential honor I could bring to her as her child.
I realized that her response was the very reflection of God’s love for me. As Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gift of salvation is unmerited, unrepayable, and imperishable.
Nothing in my life made God’s love for me more real than seeing my mom’s example, which was so countercultural to my context. If my human mother can love me so unconditionally, how much greater is the love of my perfect heavenly Father who sent his Son to die in order that I, a sinner, may have life and a relationship with him. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38–39). Even the thing that we fear most can be conquered by his love.
I arrived at Northwestern University in fall 2009 as a junior transfer student. A few months into the semester, I still carried a smile on my face walking around campus. My friends said I was “way too excited about school.”
How could I not smile? I had not thought it was possible to be there.
I ended up at Northwestern because God opened a door, through the sacrifice of my mother and family in China, the support of my teachers, and the generosity of the foundation and university. My education—and more importantly, my newfound realization of who I am in Christ—was the blessing of God. I was free to make the most of every moment, studying to worship rather than to perform.
Liz Dong is a graduate of College of DuPage and Northwestern University and a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She is the cofounder of Voices of Christian Dreamers and a contributor to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues(Zondervan).