DOE Promotes College Scholarships for Undocumented Students

Antonio Alarcón, a 22 year-old undocumented student born in Mexico, received a scholarship to go to college. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Antonio Alarcón, a 22 year-old undocumented student born in Mexico, received a scholarship to go to college. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

As a young child living in Veracruz, Mexico, Antonio Alarcón always used to say to his grandfather that he would study something that allowed him to appear on TV when he grew up. At 10, he crossed the border with his parents in search of a better future. Although he never felt different from anyone in New York, when he finished high school and was nominated for a scholarship for being one of the 10 best students in his school, he learned what being undocumented meant.

“I didn’t understand it until I reached my sophomore year. I was one of the top 10, and my counselor said: ‘Congratulations, Antonio, you have a scholarship. I just need your social security number.’ I told her that I didn’t have one and, although my dreams came crashing down, I knew that a door was closing on me but other doors would open up,” said the 22-year-old Mexican student. He later received a private scholarship to study at LaGuardia Community College, and recently obtained another one to study film at Queens College. “We cannot give up just because we’re undocumented, because opportunities are out there; we just need to go find them,” he said.

That seems to be the premise the New York City Department of Education (DOE) is promoting through a campaign they are carrying out in schools. It aims to help people like Antonio access a program that informs undocumented students of scholarship programs available to them, and helps them in the application process.

“We have many scholarships for undocumented students that aren’t being used. That’s why I want to tell parents to reach out to the schools and talk to the counselors to find out more, because every student is capable of going to college. It’s a matter of being informed,” said DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

By the same token, the department’s associate director of college and career planning, Sugeni Pérez-Sadler, mentioned that every public school in the city currently has counselors trained specifically to offer advice to students on scholarship applications and college planning.

“We have several equality and excellence initiatives to offer college access for all, and we are making sure that every student is graduating with a personalized college and career plan in which they can see their goals and their career dreams reflected, and that also shows the best way to pursue that career, making sure that they have the resources to fulfill such a plan,” said the public official.

“Eighty percent of all our schools have been trained to help students apply for scholarships and assistance so that undocumented youths can see that they have options when it comes to paying for college,” said the expert, adding that, every year, they mail out a 15- to 20-page publication informing students about ways to apply for college grants and payment options to an average of 70,000 students approaching graduation.

“A number of myths exist among undocumented youths and their parents that we need to get rid of. One of them is the belief that it is impossible for them to go to college. Though it is not easy, it is possible. However, they need to talk to the counselor at each one of the schools beginning in freshman year,” said Fariña. “It’s hard if a young person only says that they don’t have documents when they are close to graduating, but even then it’s not impossible.”

The DOE promotes scholarships benefiting undocumented students alongside at least 50 private institutions and universities that do not use state or federal money.

As Antonio Alarcón enjoys the scholarship he received from The Dream.US, which covers all his tuition, books and transportation expenses, he dreams of making a documentary to motivate young people to follow his example.

“They say that they can take away your house, they can take away your car, but they can’t take away your education,” said the student, who still has not been able to fulfill his dream of having his parents attend any of his graduations, as they returned to Mexico when he was 17, right before his high school graduation ceremony.

“My commitment is to help youths go to college. But not just to go, to finish it, because only 13 percent of Latinos and African Americans end up graduating,” he said.

For his part, Javier Valdés, co-executive director of the Make the Road New York organization, said that starting a campaign to inform undocumented youths about their college options is a positive step, but pointed out that having the legislature make some advances would give more opportunities to people graduating from schools.

“Undocumented students suffer much financial need because they have to pay so much money to study,” said the activist. “For that reason, we are working to educate young people about the existence of a number of scholarships. However, we must simultaneously continue to fight for the DREAM Act to finally pass in New York, which would solve this problem in a systematic manner.”

Several organizations dedicated to assisting undocumented people agree that access to higher education for students without legal status is vital to the improvement of their lives, as research shows that people who finish college generally earn twice as much as people who only finish high school.

“Many DREAMers [who] came to the United States as minors have graduated from U.S. high schools or earned a U.S. high school equivalency, but lack a legal status. This prevents them from accessing any federal aid to help pay for their college education,” says The Dream.US., an organization offering scholarships to undocumented people who have DACA or TPS. “They share the dream of obtaining a college education which can help them lift their families, [their] communities and themselves out of poverty.”

Available scholarships and important facts

  • The city’s DOE offers information about scholarships in general at:
  • http://schools.nyc.gov/StudentSupport/GuidanceandCounseling/Guidance/PostSecondary/FinancialAid/default.htm
  • Available scholarships and requirements: http://www.maldef.org/assets/pdf/2016-2017_MALDEF_Scholarship_List.pdf
  • The Dream.US is one of the largest scholarship providers, offering financial aid for up to $25,000 for two- and four-year degree programs to students who wish to attend CUNY.
  • More information at: http://www2.cuny.edu/financial-aid/scholarships/the-dream-us/
  • Last year, The Dream.US granted nearly 1,500 scholarships. Most of the beneficiaries were undocumented students from New York.
  • Currently, 80 percent of New York’s public schools have specially-trained counselors who can help students create a college plan and apply for scholarships.
  • New York schools have 1,500 counselors who are available to talk to parents and students.
  • Because information on students’ immigration status is confidential and as a means to protect them, the city does not possess figures on how many undocumented students graduate each year.
  • At a national level, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate each year.
  • The DOE’s goal is to have one adult for every 35 students near graduation to help them through the scholarship application process, to guarantee a better chance to access college education.
  • One of the most important initiatives of the city’s mayor regarding education is “college access for all.”
  • Junior high school students – sixth, seventh and eighth grades – are taken on visits to college campuses to spark their enthusiasm and their interest in entrance requirements.
  • Some of the scholarships require students to be community or school leaders, so it is recommended that they get involved with their communities and educational centers from early on.
  • It is also important that the students have good grades. However, there are opportunities for all.

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