Going back to his college days, Juventino Meza was known as the kid who got things done. Student body president. Community organizer. Advocate for immigration reform.

There wasn't a politician, civic booster, faith leader or college president with whom Meza wouldn't share his story. Speaking at rallies and public hearings, he became a prominent face in the national movement to expand the rights of Dreamers like himself, immigrant youth who resided in the United States illegally after arriving in the country as children.

Meza is still forging new trails.

The 35-year-old is believed to be one of just a few undocumented immigrants to graduate from law school in Minnesota. He received his degree this past spring from Mitchell Hamline School of Law and plans to take the bar next year.

But before you write this off as a simple success story, Meza wants you to know that the road to get here was long and messy — just like the frustrating path immigration reform has taken.

In high school he was bullied and even dropped out for a short while. The first time he took the ACT, the results came back worse than he feared.

"If you take the ACT and you fill out the same bubble for every answer, I think your score is like 13. I got a 10," Meza recalled with a laugh. "I got less points than you would if you hadn't tried."

It took him seven years to graduate from law school, mostly because he kept running out of tuition money and didn't qualify for federal student loans due to his immigration status. Law school can be a slog for anyone, but in classrooms where he was the only undocumented person, he struggled to find his place.

In sharing his shortcomings, Meza reminds us that the journey to something better is often paved with struggle. He recently spoke to hundreds of Latino students at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, recounting his setbacks and hardships while encouraging students to find guidance and allies early on.

"I've always thought about how hard it was for me to go to college and then law school," he said. "Why does it need to be that hard? I hope students realize they have to do the work, but they don't have to do it alone."

Not young anymore

Many Dreamers today are no longer undocumented "youth." When they came to prominence in the 2000s and 2010s, some assumed it wouldn't be long before Congress passed a pathway to legal permanent status for these young people. After all, Dreamers consistently poll favorably among the public: About two-thirds of Americans say they would favor such a law.

But that law never happened.

"We will be undocumented elders by the time we obtain legal status," Meza wrote in a recent op-ed.

Meza's story in the U.S. starts in 2003. Then 15, he left Jalisco, Mexico, with his older siblings to join their parents in Minnesota. His father worked construction and his mom packaged newspapers at the Pioneer Press printing plant.

At Arlington High School in St. Paul, it wasn't clear how a kid like him, with no money or legal status, could attend college. But he knew he had to do it. This became more obvious after he was cornered in the school restroom, where other immigrant kids called him names and tried to beat him up because he was gay.

Meza's laser-like focus became: "How do I get an education so I'm not around my bullies?"

At the time, college was out of reach for kids like Meza because there was no financial aid for undocumented students to attend public institutions. But Augsburg University, a private college, accepted Meza and gave him a full ride.

The summer before he entered college, he co-founded Navigate MN (now known as Unidos MN), which provided resources for immigrant students, and became its first executive director. Around the same time, John Keller, then head of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, was starting to do more advocacy for immigration reform.

"Suddenly, here was this young man who was a trailblazer," said Keller, now the state's chief deputy attorney general. "He was always willing to go anywhere and speak to anyone, using the gift he had as a young Dreamer to be the face and motivation for people to learn about the need for a new approach. He was successful as a human being, and so likable and persuasive, and in lots of ways, an everyday person that people couldn't help but root for."

Keller and Meza joined forces, not only at demonstrations and legislative hearings, but as friends. Years later, Keller helped Meza apply to law school. He said Meza's style has always been to climb high and to give a boost to the people around him.

"That's the only way he knows how to succeed: Open the door for others, and tell folks, 'You can do this, as well,' " Keller said.

A win for students

As an activist, Meza threw his weight behind a state proposal to offer undocumented youth in-state tuition rates to attend public colleges. It took a grinding 10 years, but the Legislature passed the Minnesota Dream Act in 2013. The new law also allowed undocumented students to be considered for state financial aid. The win was too late to help Meza — he had already graduated from Augsburg. But his advocacy helped younger students see their future in a college classroom.

One person he inspired is Uriel Rosales, who was an undocumented high school student when he befriended Meza.

"Movements aren't just one person, but he was a great leader and made things happen," said Rosales, now a U.S. citizen through marriage.

He said Meza stayed positive in a grueling political climate where immigrants' dreams and desperation collide.

"It's contradictory and at times infuriating," Rosales said of the inertia of immigration reform. "But people like Juve just push and push and keep us hoping."

Still in limbo

Meza is still opening doors. He helped create a paid internship program for BIPOC students interested in state government and policymaking. He meets regularly with congressional staff to advise them on immigration issues. But he is still not a U.S. citizen.

He receives temporary relief under the Obama era's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, but that is under threat. A federal judge in September declared that the revised DACA policy was illegal. A conservative U.S. Supreme Court could determine the fate of the program as early as next year.

"Being in limbo means you are in constant risk of losing everything you've built," Meza said. "DACA was never meant to be permanent, but Congress has not stepped in to create a solution. The courts are playing fire, bouncing us around. You're always in dread of what could happen."

As a DACA recipient, Meza has built a life to be proud of in this country. He was able to get a federally backed mortgage for a house in West St. Paul that he shares with his parents and younger siblings. Because he could legally work, he paid his way through law school one semester at a time — though he needed to quit twice when he couldn't take care of the bills.

Currently Meza works as a lobbyist for environmental causes and is studying for the bar. While he doesn't know yet how he'll use his law degree, he'd like to keep advocating for the undocumented. Many are waiting for him.

A group of Latina moms Meza recently encountered were ecstatic that he graduated from law school. "And they were like, 'But you're gonna do free legal services, right?' " he recalled. "That breaks my heart. The need in the community is so big, and people just need help."

But his parents need him, too. As the first in his family to graduate from high school, college, and now law school, Meza is their retirement plan. He is figuring out how he can become financially stable as a lawyer while lifting up others.

And sometimes, those people are the dreamers: young individuals trying to find their place, who stand inches away from success but may not even know it. So he continues to share pieces of himself — the highs and the lows, the loneliness and the triumph.

"If you only see the achievement, you don't see the nitty-gritty of how a person goes from A to B," he said. "People need to know that."