Jessica Hyejin Lee, a junior at Bryn Mawr College, did not plan to blurt out her deeply held secret - not in front of an auditorium packed with 300 students and professors, and with the college president sitting just a few feet away.

But the more she listened last month to a talk on the quest for gay rights, the more it recalled her own struggles: The day she received 10 college rejections despite a stellar performance in high school, or when she couldn't tell her best friends the real reason she passed up a chance to study in South Africa.

Still, the 20-year-old native of South Korea was nervous when she finally reached the front of the auditorium.

"Hi, I'm Jessica Lee from Class of 2013," she said. "I work for the undocumented-immigrant advocacy group Dream Activist PA . . . and I'm undocumented myself."

Later, Lee said,: "I guess I was more glad than nervous, really. I trusted in the Bryn Mawr community and just was excited that I was finally speaking out about my struggles."

Others without papers have attended Bryn Mawr, but "Jessica was the first who wanted to fight it," said Michelle Mancini, an assistant dean and one of the few administrators who knew Lee's status. "She wasn't just willing to accept that she couldn't do what other students could do."

Lee is part of a wave of undocumented college students who have stepped out of the shadows in recent months.

For many, the stalemate over a proposed national DREAM Act - which would offer a path to legal status for those who graduate from high school and go to college or enter the military - has persuaded them to put a human face on the heated debate, even if they risk deportation to make their point.

David Bennion, an immigration lawyer and leader of Dream Activist PA, compared the phenomenon to gays' coming out a generation ago.

What these young people are saying, he said, is: "We want to show we're just normal people. We're going to college. We all know English. We grew up in this country."

National politics

It's an issue that has been playing out on the broad canvas of national politics. But for Lee, the politics are intertwined with a deeply personal story. Even today, when she retells it, the words come softly and through clenched teeth.

In December 2003, Lee's parents flew their family, including a younger sister and brother, to Los Angeles on a six-month tourist visa. Her parents found the culture in Korea rigid and stifling.

When their visa expired, the Lees stayed and settled in Rowland Heights, a predominantly Asian working-class suburb. Lee's parents barely earned enough to rent a house and were always low on cash.

"They were happy they were able to afford a better future for my siblings and I," Lee said. "But they really sacrificed all their lives."

Lee knew little English when she began public school. "It was hard," she recalled. "I didn't really know what I was getting into. All I knew was Disneyland."

But like her parents, she embraced both diversity - making an effort to befriend all kinds of classmates - and hard work. In high school, she took part in the International Baccalaureate program and a long list of extracurriculars.

Bitter lessons

Lee also learned something else: The bitter lessons shared by thousands of high-achieving high school students who are in the United States illegally. For every door that opened in school, another remained locked.

She could not apply for a driver's license, for instance. When friends asked why not, "I said my parents don't want me to drive - they thought it was too dangerous," she said.

"In high school, I was really angry at them for bringing me here like this," she said.

But those problems were just a foreshadowing of the obstacles to come.

Few colleges proactively bar illegal immigrants from applying, but the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools annually must navigate a virtual minefield. Federal student aid such as Pell grants and direct Stafford loans are not an option.

Most colleges classify undocumented applicants as international students, said Jenny Rickard, Bryn Mawr's chief enrollment officer. That means they must compete for a limited number of slots against wealthy foreigners able to pay the full fare.

Knowing the roadblocks, Lee applied to 24 schools - and got into one, the University of California, Irvine, but without financial aid. Today, she tears up talking about those months when her friends beamed about their college opportunities while rejection letters flooded her mailbox. "I'll never know why I was rejected," she said.

Wait-listed at Bryn Mawr, she graduated from high school depressed about her future. That summer, she wrote an appeal letter to the college and got in - with $46,000 in financial aid to boot. Lee called it a miracle.

A physics and political science major, she still could not apply for a variety of summer jobs, internships, and study-abroad programs.

"It was frustrating and heartbreaking," Mancini said. "She and I sat in my office plenty of times and got frustrated that there were so many opportunities that she would be perfect for and couldn't take advantage of."

In the end, however, events on the national scene pushed Lee to come out. Upset over the Alabama law that would increase arrests and deportation of the undocumented, she joined local activists in a protest there. Thirteen people were arrested for civil disobedience.

In a kind of reverse logic, students who come out and make political statements have been less likely to get deported, said Dominic Powell, cofounder of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, which in March sponsored a National Coming Out of the Shadows week.

Since going public, Lee has heard from a handful of other students at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore College who are in the same boat, as well as alumni who attended the schools without legal papers.

One alum even offered to adopt her if it would help.

For now, she is encouraging Bryn Mawr to declare itself a sanctuary and vow not to cooperate with immigration raids on students and workers. A college spokesperson would not comment on the proposal.

She knows that with a degree from an elite college, she will be luckier than most. Still, without a Social Security number, she has no idea how she will get a decent job.

"A lot of people in admissions are worried about me getting deported," she said. "But I've lived this life for eight years. My dreams and the dreams of 12 million people can't wait anymore."

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.