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Study abroad program gives DACA beneficiaries rare educational and cultural opportunities

A Mexican citizen, Lily Loera arrived in the United States with her mom and older brother when she was only 2 years old. She doesn’t recall her life in Mexico, but for years – while growing up, getting two college degrees and working in the U.S. – she’s yearned to connect with her culture, return to the country of her birth and visit family in Mexico.

As a person with DACA status, she never had that opportunity to go back home – until December 2022 when Loera took a trip through the Mexico International Study Opportunity for Learning (MISOL) Program.

“I was so young when I left Mexico, I have no memories of growing up there. I don’t have stories from Mexico,” Loera says. “This was my opportunity to create those stories and make memories.”

MISOL provides a study abroad opportunity for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries to attend a program at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico. During the month-long trip, participants engage in programming around culture, history, identity and language as well as conduct ethnographic research on their family migration.

The Center for DREAMers, a grant-based project housed at the UW Law School, created the MISOL program with the support of the Division of Continuing Studies. The Center sponsored one trip in winter 2022 and has another group ready to go in August 2023.

“There’s such a high need and great interest in Wisconsin for this program,” says Erika Rosales, director of the Center for DREAMers. “This educational opportunity is so important. The vast majority of DACA recipients have not been home since they came to the U.S. They have a big disconnect with their language, the culture, family and the land. This allows them to reconnect.”

Educational access for DACA beneficiaries

Rosales co-founded the MISOL program with the other two members of their steering committee, Yesenia Villalpando-Torres and Gerardo Mancilla. Rosales herself is also a DACA recipient. She traveled to Mexico in 2021 for the first time since arriving in the U.S. as a 12-year-old in 1995.

“I have a solid memory of a beautiful childhood in Mexico,” she says. “But some of our MISOL participants don’t remember anything about it – they left so young. Having that disconnect from your homeland is difficult. It shifts your identity, and you always feel like you’re in limbo.”

misol students standing next to a branch of the UNAM Mexican university
MISOL participants at the CEPE-Taxco campus, a branch of the Foreign Students Learning Center of the National Autonomous University of México.

Started as an executive order by President Obama in 2012, DACA is a policy that currently protects approximately 600,000 young people — known as “DREAMers” — brought to the U.S as children from deportation. The program does not grant them official legal status or a pathway to citizenship, but it does allow them to apply for a driver’s license, social security number, work permit and Advance Parole to travel internationally.

While DACA provides benefits, when it comes to education, “DACA recipients cannot apply for federal financial aid for education, and Wisconsin does not have in-state tuition for undocumented students including DACA beneficiaries. This leaves people with limited access to higher education,” Rosales says. “MISOL helps provide access. Through MISOL they can participate in a noncredit university program, attend a top university in Mexico and even get a student ID from the UNAM.”

DACA beneficiaries must have travel authorization to leave the U.S., and MISOL helps participants obtain this permission – called Advance Parole. DACA recipients may seek Advance Parole for humanitarian, educational or employment purposes.

“DACA is an uncertainty. I always think about the future and what I must do to be secure in the U.S. I have to take it day by day. I love Mexico, but the U.S. is my home,” says Loera, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UW–Madison and is a social worker with Joining Forces for Families in Dane County.

While DACA beneficiaries can continue to reapply for the program, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has no longer been processing applications for new applicants, and the future of DACA is unknown.

‘Such an amazing chance’

Loera traveled to Mexico with MISOL from mid-December 2022 to mid-January 2023 with 17 other participants and the three members of the steering committee. The first two weeks, they took part in ethnographic research. For the rest of the month, they gathered at UNAM to perfect their Spanish, learn about local and Mexican history and immerse themselves in workshops on Mexican traditions and celebrations.

Lily Loera kneeling at her grandfather's gravesite.
Lily Loera places flowers on the grave of her grandfather in Torreón.

The participants had a tamaliza con rosca de reyes on Three Kings Day and learned about medicinal plants as part of their hands-on workshops. The cohort also connected with emblematic places such as the iconic town of Taxco, La Casa Azul de Frida Kahlo, the Teotihuacan and Xochicalco pyramids, Xochimilco, El Museo de Antropologia and more.

“During the ethnographic research part of program, participants get to visit their family,” Rosales says. “To see pictures of them with family members and grandparents, seeing the joy in their faces and tears, that was really beautiful.”

Loera spent her first week in Monterrey, Mexico, visiting relatives from her mother’s side, including cousins, aunts, uncles and her grandmother, who’d kept a special doll of hers from when Loera was a baby. She also visited relatives from her father’s side in Torreón, a rural area. Loera was finally able to place flowers on the grave of her grandfather there.

“Being undocumented, I never thought I would have a chance to go back to Mexico. This was such an amazing chance for me,” she says.

Rosales says the MISOL group bonded over their common identity as DACA beneficiaries who came from Mexico adding, “Some of the participants are parents, some are students, some are professionals, some have a high school diploma but did not go into higher ed. It’s a wonderfully diverse group that unites around a shared culture and unique experience.”

Loera adds, “Everything was so healing and transformative to the point where there were tears, and I just still couldn’t believe it. Having this opportunity was life changing. I think the experience will also help me better serve people in my job as a social worker.”

Lily Loera in a group family photo
Lily Loera, front center, reuniting with her family.

MISOL is open to DACA beneficiaries living in Dane County who are 18 years of age or older. Participants do not need to be enrolled UW–Madison students. The summer 2023 trip is full and will take place August 1–September 2. If you’re interested in contributing funds toward this trip, or you have ideas on how MISOL can continue, email

Rosales adds, “These trips mean coming home in many ways for the participants – coming home to learn about their past, their relatives, their culture, their history, but most importantly to learn about themselves.”