By Matthew Kredell
Melody Klingenfuss entered the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program knowing exactly what she wanted to get out of it, down to the organization at which she wanted to work.
During the summer after finishing her bachelor’s degree at Cal State Los Angeles, she interned with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). As an undocumented immigrant in the United States under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) – the 2012 Presidential executive order that gives her temporary deportation relief, a work permit, social security number and state identification for having entered the U.S. before age 16, attended school, kept an upstanding record and paid a biannual fee – Klingenfuss realized that she could accomplish her life’s calling to support others like her at CHIRLA. But first, she was going to need further education in leading a nonprofit.
“I felt that, to change the issues I care about, not only does policy need to change, but there has to be work done at the nonprofit level to fill in gaps where the government and educational system in California are failing undocumented students,” Klingenfuss said. “Even though CHIRLA was doing great work, I saw areas where they were getting stuck. I wanted to go back to school and become someone who could contribute to helping with that and advancing all the wonderful work they are doing with the immigrant community.”
Throughout her time in USC Price’s MLNM program, Klingenfuss thought about how she could apply what she learned to CHIRLA. Now she’ll get the chance.
Less than two weeks after completing her master’s degree, Klingenfuss got what she calls her dream job, as statewide youth organizer for the California Dream Network run by CHIRLA.
She credits the MNLM degree capstone course – in which the cohort created a growth plan for a real-life organization – as being key to landing the position.
When CHIRLA asked her to create and present a plan for its future, she took the structure straight from what she learned in the capstone course taught by Associate Professor Nicole Esparza, who is the field coordinator for nonprofits and philanthropy programs at USC Price.
“They were like, ‘Wow, you really thought of everything,’” recalled Klingenfuss about the job interview. “I think it was a deal sealer for them.”
Klingenfuss, the youngest student in her cohort, made a strong impression on her fellow students and teachers with her story.
“Melody is just amazing,” Esparza said. “She has been fighting for undocumented students for years, before it became a popular issue in response to the problems that came with the current administration. Her passion to get up and go every day for that cause is inspiring. She absolutely represents everything the Price School wants to do.”
Klingenfuss was born in Guatemala. Her mother, a citizen of El Salvador, was able to obtain Temporary Protected Status from the United States to legally enter the country. This option wasn’t available to citizens of Guatemala, so the baby was left behind with her grandfather while her teenage mother moved to Los Angeles and tried to send home money from working with other immigrants at shops set up in the alleys of downtown.
After her grandfather died when she was a toddler, Klingenfuss stayed with neighbors and distant family members. Every Tuesday evening, she would cross the border to the nearest international payphone in El Salvador to call her mother. She still remembers the phone number.
When Klingenfuss was nine, her mother had her brought to the United States on a tourist visa. When the visa expired after six months, she remained with her mother in Los Angeles.
She didn’t realize she was undocumented until she was 17, when it came time to apply for colleges. She graduated from Fairfax High with honors and could have earned admission into many top schools, but options were limited by her status and inability to secure scholarships or financial aid.
California’s Dream Act that allowed undocumented students to apply for privately funded scholarships given out by a public college or university in the state – and later for institutional aid and Cal Grants – had yet to take effect.
Esparza refers to Klingenfuss as a unicorn, because not many undocumented students make it to a master’s degree, especially at a leading private university like USC.
Undocumented students face many challenges to fund a graduate degree. Klingenfuss didn’t qualify for school loans at USC because of her status, which was also the reason she couldn’t build credit to get a loan through an outside agency.
Fortunately, her mother – who had managed to complete a GED through adult school and get an associate’s degree from Los Angeles City College to become an administrator at a charter school – had excellent credit to back her loans. With the Dream Act operational, she was able to receive scholarships from agencies that allow undocumented students to apply.
She also worked full time in public relations for the Transamerica Center for Health Studies, served as a research assistant for Esparza, and worked weekend jobs such as being Santa’s helper at the Grove, all while completing the rigorous MNLM program.
While in college, Klingenfuss was active in the California Dream Network, an association of college organizations that address undocumented student issues. Today, she organizes the network.
When the executive director of CHIRLA asked her where she saw herself in 10 years, Klingenfuss answered that she wants to be the executive director of CHIRLA, or leading another nonprofit that focuses on immigrant issues.
However, it’s hard to think 10 years ahead when she knows her future in the U.S. is precarious. President Trump backed off his campaign vow to end DACA. Yet, there’s been a significant increase this year in DACA status being revoked for alleged criminal activity. Klingenfuss is in constant fear that she could be targeted for being vocal on this issue, although it doesn’t stop her from speaking out.
She started her job with CHIRLA on June 6, a responsibility she’s excited yet nervous to take on at age 23.
“I really think MNLM prepared me for this,” Klingenfuss said. “I know going forward with the position that I’ll be able to reach out to my cohort mates, Nicole [Esparza] or any professor I had at Price for support. There’s always hesitation to talk about being undocumented in such sensitive times, but Price made me feel so welcome and accepted.”