At 16, after submitting police records, school transcripts, immunization documentation and undergoing various lengthy background checks, Karen Caudillo joined the growing number of undocumented youth in America as a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Today, Caudillo is so much more than her residential status and is a UCF presidential candidate along with her running mate, Theressa Tong.
The pair’s “IgKnight Your Possibilities” campaign is more than a slogan; it’s representative of the heart behind the women’s platform.
“I decided to run for student body president because I realized that our school was at a turning point,” Caudillo said. “We’re either going to become more inclusive, or we’re going to watch as part of our student body goes back into the shadows.”
DACA was first introduced in 2012 by President Obama. The policy was created to protect undocumented minors, like Caudillo, from deportation. Earlier this year, President Trump repealed the policy, threatening the security of thousands of students across the country.
“I always understood that things were going to be different for me,” Caudillo said. “It never hit me until everyone at my school started driving and I realized, ‘Whoa, I can’t do that.’”
It was through DACA that Caudillo was able to get a driver’s licence and even apply for a social security number.
“This is my home, I’m not going anywhere,” Caudillo said. “A document doesn’t define who I am.”
In September, Caudillo traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the repeal of DACA by participating in a four-day fast.
Despite her circumstances, Caudillo said she still considers herself very privileged.
“I’m very thankful that I’m in the position that I am,” Caudillo said. “I know DACA recipients who work two jobs, who don’t have time to be involved.”
It was through her ability to get involved that her partnership with Theresa Tong began.
Both Tong and Caudillo were running in the 50th UCF senate elections when they met. They said their connection was instantaneous.
“I remember her asking me, ‘What can I do?’” Caudillo said. “You have to ask the people most affected what you can do to assist them — that’s solidarity.”
Tong said it was Caudillo who reached out about the election first.
“It was during a time where I was really fed up with how much it took to help the students,” Tong recalled. “So I said, 'Yes, but we have to do it while reaching out to minority student communities.'”
Tong, a junior studying interdisciplinary studies, is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She and Caudillo share the goal of improving the experience of UCF's first-generation students.
“Student equity and human equity in general is so essential, and I believe that our university can do a much better job at making sure every student has every resource available to reach every opportunity that they can,” she said.
Tong is deputy pro tempore of legislative affairs the student senate and is an intern at the Florida Department of Health, all while being a full-time student.
Tong said they will be focusing on reaching students who haven’t been reached.
“We want to help transfer students, part-time students, students who work full-time and go to school full-time, graduate students and student veterans,” she said.
The pair share a passion for public service and strive to make inclusion a priority on campus.
“We all know that Karen is a huge activist for the Dream Act — we see her on campus, we see her in Tallahassee and we see her in D.C. all the time,” Tong said. “We see that passion and that drive to make sure that everyone feels safe and that everyone is getting the resources they deserve.”
Kenan Mora is a junior majoring in finance. He said that for him, Caudillo’s activism hits home.
“It just shows how far we’ve come with this movement,” Mora said. “She has a strong message, and it’s great to see some representation out there.”
Like Caudillo, Mora is a DACA recipient. The son of Colombian immigrants said he finds himself in a fortunate position. Mora was able to renew his DACA and extend it before the program was repealed, but he said it’s still been a very stressful experience.
“They’re playing with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “It’s important we stay together and support each other.”
Currently, there is no legislation protecting undocumented students, an issue that Mora said he takes very seriously. He would like to see the university add to the panels and psychological services already offered and take legal action in support of its DACA students.
“Many people will say that we’re exaggerating the issue, but if anybody came and asked, UCF has all of my information and all of Karen’s information,” Mora said.
Mora said he would like to see the university to offer sanctuary protections to students without citizenship documentation.
“We’re in a tough position because we want to get out there and go to protests and get our word out and want people to see us, but at the same time, we’re putting ourselves at risk when we do so,” he said.
Caudillo is already working with Orlando's Trust Coalition, an organization which aims to establish trust between the Orlando Police Department and the community to ensure that local sheriffs will not initiate communications with ICE if they come in contact with undocumented immigrants.
Another concern issue is the general misunderstanding of the topic on campus. Mora said it’s because of this that he’s reluctant to tell people that he’s a DACA recipient.
“It’s a hard situation, but I think it’s important that we do tell our story and get out, or else nothing is going to get done,” he said.
Caudillo said she hopes that her and Tong’s platform starts new conversations on inclusion and diversity.
“If we don’t have a student body president that talks and creates that kind of dialogue, we’re just going to be left in the back burner,” Caudillo said. “If we’re not putting our own dialogue out, someone will put dialogue out against us.”
Even though immigration will always be important to Caudillo, she said that it doesn’t top her list of priorities. She has a much bigger picture in mind.
“Immigration rights will always be my second issue,” Caudillo said. “Climate change and sustainability will always be my first. Nothing else matters if we can’t sustain ourselves.”
On top of making the campus inclusive, she also wants to focus on making it sustainable. As one of the largest universities in the nation, Caudillo said we should be contributing more to the environment.
“If anyone should be at that table, talking about the future of Orlando and sustainability, it should be us,” she said. “We could do so much, and I see that potential.”
The journey to presidential candidate has been long one, and it’s only just begun. In March, UCF will elect a new student body president and vicep president. Regardless of the outcome, Caudillo and Tong hope to prove that this campaign is larger than them.
“As a sophomore in high school, I would have never dreamed that I would have come here and made it a more inclusive place,” Caudillo said. “I’m not running for my sake. I’m running for our sake.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Theressa Tong's first name.