When Joshua Vissoni heard Governor-elect Gavin Newsom using his name in a victory speech last week, he was as surprised as anybody.
Newsom sewed up enough votes on election night to declare he would be the state’s next governor. While doing that in front of a crowd, he recounted meeting Vissoni, a dreamer, at UC Merced a week earlier.
“Joshua’s also a dreamer who’s spent every waking day over the past year worrying if his dream was coming to an end,” Newsom said from behind a pulpit. “But he said, ‘Gavin, I can’t vote for you but I’m OK. I’m OK because I’m a Californian.’
“That’s what California means to the world,” Newsom continued. “Now it’s our turn to spend our waking days protecting that dream for every Californian.”
Vissoni said he felt it was something he needed to say to the soon-to-be leader of California.
“I felt like I couldn’t leave without saying anything. So I waited for him,” the 20-year-old said. “I don’t know, I can’t describe the feeling. It was just very cool seeing that. I didn’t just say it for nothing. It actually made an impact on him.”
Vissoni said his mother brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 3 months old so he has no memory of Mexico or the journey north. His mother settled in the Los Angeles area, where he grew up.
It has been a difficult couple of years for undocumented students who were brought to the states when they were very young. President Donald Trump has talked about eliminating several of former President Barack Obama’s actions on immigration, including the deferred-action program, known as DACA, that protects an estimated 750,000 immigrants, sometimes called “dreamers,” who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Now in his third year seeking a degree in psychology, Vissoni said his mother worked three jobs, including as a cook and maid.
“I remember growing up, my mom was working hard to raise four kids,” he said. “It was a little motivational for me, seeing her work that hard. It just made me want to get out of that situation.”
He was in the eighth or ninth grade when he found out he was undocumented, he said. While his friends were starting to study to get a driver’s license or taking trips to Mexico, he couldn’t. So his mom eventually had to explain why.
To help his mother out, Vissoni started working when he was in middle school. It’s a work ethic he’s carried into his college years. He supervises community service officers for the UC Merced campus police.
UC Merced was not at the top of his list, Vissoni admits. It wasn’t even really on his radar, but the school offered him admission and financial aid. He talked to an older neighbor who was already at the Merced campus.
“I wanted to go away from LA because I wanted to experience life while not being at my house,” he said. “(My neighbor) really liked that there was a growing campus and there was a lot of opportunities.”
“I wanted those opportunities. I’d been lacking opportunity in high school because of my status,” he said. “Work was a major one, and just knowing there are mostly first-generation students. It was a place I could envision myself and feel welcome.”
Seventy percent of UC Merced students are the first in their families to attend college, which is the highest of any University of California campus.
Newsom also got visibly emotional last week at UC Merced, recounting what Vissoni had just told him moments before. Vissoni said he hoped his words would stick with the state’s next governor.
“I know what it feels like to be shutdown, especially with the current presidential administration and not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. “It was a short conversation. (I was) just asking for his backing and his support.”