Building bridges at UT is task of FHS graduate

  • Farragut resident Luis Mata is achieving his dream of a higher education at the University of Tennessee. At the same time, he is using his experiences to help other Latino American students. - Photo submitted

  • A year into attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Luis Mata walks across the bridge at the university. - Photo submitted

Farragut resident Luis Mata, as a Latino American, counts the blessings he has had growing up in Farragut — and is paying forward those blessings.

“I’m passionate about giving back to my community that had already given so much,” Mata said. “I was super blessed with the opportunities that I had.

“I was able to grow up in this community,” he added, pointing out he has been blessed by the support of his family and the “power that existed in this community.”

In the early weeks of this year, this University of Tennessee political science student, with an eye on law school — and a goal of becoming an immigration attorney — started a new organization, Students for Migrant Justice.

“This is an organization that bridges that connection between the Knoxville immigrant community and the University of Tennessee campus,” Mata explained. “We’re focused on educating, partnering and building power among student immigrants on and off campus.

“Before I was a student at UT, there was not a group like this at the university that I could have reached out to,” he added. “When we started, we saw all the incredible support, the incredible demand that there was for an organization like this. We’ve been able to do a lot of actions, a lot of educational workshops and a lot of partnering with the community.”

That organization already is receiving recognition, earning a New Student Organization Award from UT’s Center for Student Engagement.

“We had a lot of incredible support from students and community stakeholders, which was remarkable,” said Mata, a legal permanent U.S. resident, which is one step from citizenship.

“With this organization, this (work) can continue for years after in the community and on campus. ... that the passion I had never be the last.”

Mata, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1995, came to Farragut where his mother took over his uncle’s restaurant, Monterrey, when he was 5 — running it for more than a decade. He graduated from Farragut High School in 2014.

Watching any positive profile of a Latino American on TV, “My grandmother would always point to me and say, ‘Luis, one day that’s going to be you: being that pride for my family and my community,’” he recalled.

“That’s pretty much been my goal ever since.”

Mata entered the United States with a tourist visa; but, he said, “those are only valid for six months.” He was able to stay in America after becoming s a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient in 2012, but he pointed out that designation did not qualify him for federal aid, and he also would have to pay out-of-state tuition, which limited his choice of colleges he could afford to attend.

Rather than attending UT, which was his first choice, he attended Pellissippi State Community College, only taking one class a semester, which he did for two years.

While he said that tuition still was a financial burden on him and his family, Mata said, “We made it work. We supported one another. I also supported my younger brother and sister.”

In the meantime, though, another immigration process, which was separate from DACA, became available to him in 2017. While it meant returning to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico, he was approved and is now

Around the same time, Mata contacted the City of Knoxville Mayor, who connected him with an immigration attorney who, in turn, offered him a job. He also was now able to apply for federal tuition assistance, so after graduating from PSCC with an associate’s degree in May 2019, he started his first semester at UT in fall 2019. He expects to graduate in May 2020 and then attend law school.

“My goal is to become an immigration attorney,” he said.

Not forgetting “the sacrifices that I, my family and my community went through for me to be at this point,” he said he has been determined “ever since to do everything I possibly can to assist others in any way that I possibly can and advocate alongside them to give them the access to these resources that I didn’t have.”

Mata said he wants to help the marginalized communities anyway he can.

“Often times it’s like, ‘Oh, this person is the first … for me, there were a lot of firsts. I was the first person in my immediate family to pursue a higher education, the first person in my family to have these opportunities.

With that, he reflected, “I never want to be the last,” Mata said. “I want to use this platform to that I have to assist others and to share my story with hopes it might resonate with at least one person.”