Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month: How an Undocumented PhD Student Inspires Others With Award-Winning Documentary

Oscar Cornejo Casares helped create a documentary to remove the term "illegal alien" from the Library of Congress.

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For 25-year-old Oscar Cornejo Casares, it's a privilege and a dream to walk through the campus of Northwestern University as a PhD student.

"Sometimes it feels surreal that I made it this far," said Cornejo Casares, who was born in Mexico and brought to the United States when he was 5 years old.

It's been a long journey, filled with many ups and downs as an undocumented student. In 2013, he graduated from Warren Township High School in Gurnee. He credits the Schuler Scholar Program with helping him get accepted into Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he graduated with a double major in sociology and native studies in 2017.

"As a first generation, undocumented Mexican immigrant, I had no idea how to navigate higher education," Cornejo Casares said. "Without Schuler, I would not have made it to Dartmouth, and you and I would not be talking here at Northwestern."

Cornejo Casares has temporary legal status in the United States thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, a program that is currently in limbo during President Donald Trump's administration.

"My time is very limited here," said Cornejo Casares. "And I'm trying to enjoy as much as I can because I don't know what's going to happen in three years, which is when I hope I'll finish my degree."

His future in the United States may be uncertain, but his drive to make a difference during his time here isn't. As a student at Dartmouth College, he helped create a documentary called "Change the Subject".

The documentary is about undocumented students and their allies discovering the anti-immigrant term "illegal alien" in Dartmouth's library catalog.

"I find it to be a dehumanizing term," said Cornejo Casares. "It's been utilized in such a way that it becomes a weapon to other people, other people like me, who were very much displaced from their home countries."

The documentary tracked a year-long effort to get the term removed from Dartmouth's school library and the Library of Congress. The film received national attention and obtained awards in California and Boston. The issue was even debated on Capitol Hill in 2016, but the movement stalled due to political backlash. However, what's important, Cornejo Casares said, is that it started an important conversation.

"The message of the story was more powerful and more empowering than the possibly of repercussions," said Cornejo Casares. "We're hoping to expand and take it to more of an academic setting, to show it in high schools and other universities."

Cornejo Casares credits his passion to his family and his culture. One that he's very proud of, especially during Hispanic Heritage Month.

"I think Hispanic Heritage Month is an annual renewal of our roots, where we come from, sacrifices our families have endured," he said. "I'm proud to be a part of that important history in this country."

And while his work isn't done yet, Cornejor Casares is already making an impact in other young immigrants who look up to him.

"I think that Oscar is an inspiration to students who may feel they don't have an opportunity, who want to achieve," said Joanne Bertsch, regional program assistant with the Schuler Scholar Program. "He's showing that anyone is capable of being able to focus on a goal and meet it."

The documentary "Change the Subject" can be viewed for free here.

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