Book by: Dan-El Padilla Peralta
Review by: Janis S. Albright
Student Success Advisor
University of Southern Maine

Sometimes high-risk students’ life stories make it challenging to imagine how they will progress in college. Undocumented can inspire advisors to cultivate students’ resiliency so they will succeed academically.

At age four, Dan-el Padilla Peralta and his family arrived in the U.S. from the Dominican Republic. They immigrated legally, but their visas lapsed while living in New York City. Without papers, the family became homeless, despite his mother’s will to make a better life for Dan-el and his brother. Dan-el gravitated to nearby libraries, where a volunteer recognized his curiosity and intelligence. With the volunteer’s help with an admission’s application, the oldest private school in the country accepted Dan-el on full scholarship, despite his illegal status. Dan-el excelled in prep school, then received his B.A. summa cum laude from Princeton University, later completed his Ph.D., and finally finished a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University.

Dan-el’s passionate life story can help advisors imagine what being undocumented is like and how the immigration debate may affect some of our international students. In Dan-el’s case, he experienced family pressures, uncertainties of being able to return to the US when he studied abroad, and the inability to obtain legal employment. The author shared his view that illegal immigrants can give so much to America, which contrasts with the perspective that this population drains the country’s resources.

In addition to immigration, a second relevant theme that Dan-el vividly described was how mentors influenced his success. His mentor stories parallel the caring role that advisors play. Dan-el explained how key people from his colleges, libraries, and churches shaped his life through their encouragement and love. Many times he did not have words to express his gratitude but felt so thankful for them. For example, when Dan-el thought about writing this book, he had this exchange with his pastor, Father Michael:  (pp283-284).

Father Michael asked what Dan-el wanted to write. 

Dan-el answered that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to write about himself. He’d prefer to write about the people who’d changed his life, but without any of that look-at-him-he-made-it glossiness. He also wasn’t sure he had the ability to pull it off.

Father Michael, while laughing, told Dan-el to believe in himself, and reminded him that he had the skills to write this first book, and then, write many more.

Finally, Undocumented offers clues to understanding how certain students, living in very different economic and cultural worlds, navigate successfully. Dan-el experienced a homeless shelter in Harlem at night and a prep school in upper Manhattan by day. Yet he continued to reinvent himself and take responsibility for his learning, because he took values from both worlds that didn’t contradict each other, to create his own identity and flourish.

In summary, this inspiring book can help advisors better understand the experiences of some international students, which in turn, can enrich conversations with them. Having read the advanced proof, I hope the final version will include immigration reform references and updates on Dan-el’s life. While reading Undocumented, images of my own students emerged in my head. Their faces encouraged me to ask myself how I would advise these students differently after reading this book.

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter To The Ivy League. (2015). Book by Dan-El Padilla Peralta. Review by Janis S. Albright. New York, NY: Penguin Press. 309 pp., $27.95 (Paperback). ISBN 978-1-59420-652-8 

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