Daihana Estrada, a recent graduate from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, is no stranger to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. In fact, she has been involved with CCH for more than a decade, as a scholarship winner, an intern, an advocate, and a member of the scholarship selection committee.
She also recently raised $1,890 for CCH through an online fundraiser, garnering support from 65 people from around the world.
Today, Daihana is a first-year attorney, working as a judicial law clerk in Minnesota. Hers is a journey more than 12 years in the making.
When she was 17, Daihana’s parents were deported to Mexico from Utah after 20 years of living in the U.S. Daihana was sent to Chicago to stay with family, but found herself on her own, without financial support. She often slept on friend’s couches and would sometimes eat popcorn for dinner.
“It was really hard,” Daihana acknowledged. “Luckily I was able to find really great mentors and organizations like CCH to help me along the way.”
She credits Vanessa Puentes, then her English teacher at John Hancock High School, for “completely changing the narrative to my story.” While working on an assignment to draft a personal statement, Daihana confided that she wanted to become a lawyer so that she could prevent other families from enduring the trauma and injustice that hers had experienced.
“It was the first time I said out loud: ‘my parents were deported.’ It was the first time I shared that I was on my own,” Daihana recalled.
Vanessa worked with Daihana to develop her personal statement, helping her apply to colleges and request financial aid. She also provided Daihana with resources on how to apply for health insurance, receive temporary government assistance and obtain a bus pass. By opening up about her experiences, Daihana learned that her housing situation was considered “doubled-up,” a type of homelessness characterized by temporarily staying with others.
Encouraged by Vanessa and school counselor Hector Gonzalez, Daihana applied for a college scholarship from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in 2010. Both attended the ceremony where Daihana accepted her award, providing a supportive presence as she shared her story publicly for the first time.
The CCH scholarship helped Daihana pay for housing on campus at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), providing the stability she needed to focus on her studies. CCH also offered her a paid internship with the Development Department to provide additional support.
“The way CCH approached my situation was how I knew this was an organization I want to give back to for the rest of my life,” said Daihana. “They really care.”
Daihana graduated from UIC in 2014 with a degree in political science. She worked for several years as a paralegal, and then for the American Bar Association (ABA), before applying to law school in 2018.
Loyola University law professor Mary Bird has been a long-time mentor on Daihana’s law school journey, first meeting at the CCH scholarship ceremony in 2010.
Professor Bird helped Daihana through the law school application process and later connected her to mentors and resources at Loyola during her first year of law school.
“If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to navigate law school or be where I am today,” said Daihana. “She’s been a very impactful person in my life.”
Professor Bird also introduced Daihana to the Immigrants’ Rights Coalition at Loyola, encouraging her to run for president. During her second year of law school, Daihana had the opportunity to travel to Arizona to help a detained immigrant with their asylum application through the Immigrant Rights Coalition.
The following summer, Daihana interned with the National Immigrant Justice Center where she represented a client in their asylum case, appearing before an immigration judge remotely as a law student. At the final hearing, the judge ruled in favor of Daihana’s client, allowing them to remain with their family and not be deported.
She shared this meaningful experience online in a now-viral tweet, writing, “I couldn’t change my parents outcome but I will do my best to change someone else’s.”
Daihana graduated from law school in May, and credits the many friends and allies who helped her on her journey.
Nancy Andrade, a mentor from the ABA, encouraged Daihana to transfer from Loyola’s weekend to full-time program, a move that helped Daihana better balance the rigors of law school. Director of CCH’s Law Project, Patricia Nix-Hodes, provided guidance throughout law school and during Daihana’s recent job search. Scholarships from the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois and the Diversity Scholarship Foundation were also critical to her success, as was an annual book award from CCH.
“It amazes me that I am where I am,” said Daihana. “Yes, I worked really hard, but it took a community to help me along the way.”
Today Daihana is proud to work as a judicial law clerk for the Minnesota Judicial Branch, where she is learning how judges engage in decision making. She also secured a second judicial clerkship with the Minnesota Court of Appeals next year. “It’s a lot of work,” she said, “but it’s a really great experience that will help me to be the best attorney and the best advocate I can for my clients.”
Daihana continues to serve on CCH’s scholarship selection committee and is humbled by the students she meets. “Knowing how much the scholarship helped me, and being able to give back in this way, it’s come full circle,” Daihana said. She is grateful that immigrants and asylum seekers are eligible to apply for scholarship support from CCH, a rarity in college financial assistance programs.
Her message for students experiencing homelessness? “Be kind to yourself. Experiencing homelessness is already hard enough and you are doing the best you can. Know that you are not alone and that there are people you can trust and reach out to. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a teacher, counselor or principal at school. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness or anything you should be ashamed of because of the stigma around homelessness. It might be hard in the beginning to share your story with others to get help, but once you do, you will create your own village of supporters. Which will help you not feel alone in this. And at your own pace, you can stop surviving and start living a more stable life filled with housing security.”
Daihana also seeks to eliminate stigmas and stereotypes around what it means to experience homelessness.
“It’s important to educate yourself on the actual situation,” Daihana shared. “Homelessness is not a choice. People don’t ask to be homeless. I want to spread more empathy and understanding towards that.”