Sophy Fonteyn on Empowering Undocumented Students

Updated: Jul 13, 2018

Meet the Homegirl: Immigrant, Social Worker, Co-Founder of UndocuSTEM

By Malavika Kannan

Crossing the border is never an easy choice. But for Gabriela Amel Petalta--or Sophy Fonteyn, as she’s called--it was her only choice.

Orphaned at a young age in her native country of Mexico, Sophy had no option but to run from the kinds of conditions that crush human souls. From gut-wrenching poverty. From physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. From malnourishment, neglect, and exploitation. In the face of devastating conditions, fifteen-year-old Sophy made the life-changing choice to take control of her own life.

She packed her things, picked up her brother, and crossed the border to safety.

The siblings relocated to New York City, where they found themselves living in a total paradox. They were in the land of the brave, except that they lived in constant fear of being discovered, exploited, or worse. They were in the home of the free, except that Sophy sometimes felt like she could ever escape her life in the shadows.

In spite of everything, Sophy never relinquished her dream of pursuing an education. At the age of twenty, she learned to speak English. She enrolled in community college, aspiring to shine light in shadowed corners and uplift others.

However, Sophy’s college path was jeopardized by her undocumented status. If it wasn’t for her incredible outreach counselor, Elmer, Sophy might never have earned her degree in Child Development. Her brother wasn’t quite so lucky--he lost his path to medical school due to a lack of resources, mentors, and internship opportunities. These experiences convinced Sophy to dedicate her life to empowering STEM students, regardless of their citizenship status.

Drawing on her background as an advocate and student organizer, Sophy founded UndocuSTEM. Soon to be a nonprofit organization, UndocuSTEM provides education, resources, and mentorship to students, teachers, counselors, and allies in order to uplift aspiring undocumented STEM students. So far, Undocustem has hosted two conferences, connecting over 400 undocumented students to resource networks in order to pursue careers in STEM. Today, Sophy believes her cause is more important than ever.

Because as a Latinx woman, Sophy knows how easy it is to silence people like her, simply because they’re powerless, darker-skinned, and have accents. As an undocumented immigrant, she knows what it’s like to have doors closed in her face and opportunities denied because of a single word: illegal. She knows the courage it takes to cross borders in search of a better life. And as a social worker, it breaks her heart to live in a world where children are put in cages for the crime of dreaming on the wrong side of the border.

Sophy’s journey serves as proof that no document defines you, no wall blocks you, no ban denies you, and no bully silences you. Because at the age of fifteen, Sophy and her brother were making the harrowing journey across the U.S. border. But this year, at the age of thirty-three, Sophy was making the uplifting journey across the stage to receive her master’s degree in social work--not just for herself, but for hundreds or thousands of little girls whose strength transcends every border.

And she’s just getting started.