Author: Lilliane Ballesteros
Applying to college is a process full of anxieties surrounding grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, college visits and financial aid packages. Students spend hours, days, months and sometimes years trying to pick the right college. For some students, however, this decision is accompanied with worries regarding citizenship, what to answer when asked for a social security number they don’t have and how to fund a college education without being eligible for any kind of government financial aid.
The intersection between education and immigration has often been a hotly debated topic with an abundance of arguments on both sides. In 1996, Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act prohibited illegal aliens, or undocumented students, from receiving in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. This law, passed on a federal level, was challenged when several states, including California, made it possible for undocumented students to receive in-state tuition benefits as long as they had attended high school in the state for three or more years.
Yet, even with the application of in-state tuition fees, federal law still prohibits undocumented students from receiving federal loans and grants, including work-study jobs. Undocumented students cannot work without a work permit, which they lack because of their illegal status. Without scholarships, grants and work-study, it is incomprehensible for many undocumented students to attend college because of their financial status.
The Federal Dream Act, which was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001, has gained much attention as a way for undocumented students to receive “conditional legal status” as long as they attend college. In the Senate, the Dream Act is also known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act and in the House of Representatives it is sometimes called the American Dream Act. The Dream Act is bipartisan legislation, sponsored by both Republican and Democratic Senators and House Representatives. In the Senate, the DREAM Act was sponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Richard Lugar (R-IN). In the House, it was sponsored by Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Howard Berman (D-CA), and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA).
If passed, the DREAM Act would “permit certain immigrant students who have grown up in the U.S. to apply for temporary legal status and eventually obtain permanent status and become eligible for citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military; and eliminate a federal provision that penalizes states that provide in-state tuition without regard to immigration status.”
In order for a student to be eligible for the Federal Dream Act, he or she must “have been brought to the U.S. more than five years ago when he or she was 15 years old or younger and must be able to demonstrate good moral character.”
According to the National Immigration Law Center “Under the DREAM Act, once [an undocumented] student graduates from high school, he or she would be permitted to apply for conditional status, which would authorize up to six years of legal residence.”
The DREAM Act has gone through several changes since its inception. In order to garner support from both Republican and Democratic Senators, the DREAM Act has grown to include military service as a way for students to gain temporary residency. Some opposition groups have claimed that because of this new stipulation, the DREAM Act has morphed into a way for the army to recruit from immigrant populations.
The DREAM Act, if passed, would help supplement the California Law AB540, which was started in 2002. AB540 follows the DREAM Act in that it states students “must have attended a high school in California for three or more years” and “must have graduated from a California high school or attained the equivalent of a high school diploma.” However, it departs from the DREAM Act in that it only requires students to file an affidavit, or a formal sworn statement, with a college or university, “stating that he or she has applied to legalize his or her status or will do as soon as he or she is eligible to do so.”
Locally, the California Dream Act, also known as Senate Bill One, has not yet been passed. The California Dream Act failed to pass in 2006. At that time, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stated concerns over undocumented students taking away financial aid from documented students, pointing to the lack of financial aid offered to students in general. After that veto, the Dream Act was amended to exclude competitive financial assistance, such as the Cal Grant.
However, early this October, Schwarzenegger vetoed the new version of the Dream Act, citing competition among students for state funds. “At a time when segments of California public higher education, the University of California and the California State University, are raising fees on all students attending college in order to maintain the quality of education provided, it would not be prudent to place additional strain on the general fund to accord the new benefit of providing state subsidized financial aid to students without lawful immigration status,” Schwarzenegger said, regarding his veto.
At first glance, it seems there are little to no financial opportunities for undocumented students looking to attend college. Indeed, the search for money is often arduous. In some cases, the money does not exist and, in other cases, it is not openly advertised for undocumented students.
However, there are scholarships that private colleges can offer—something a public university does not have the authority to do. Occidental is one of several institutions that aids undocumented students in their quest for knowledge. “As a private institution [Occidental has] a bit more flexibility in the conduct of [its] admission and financial aid programs,” Dean of Admission Vincent Cuseo explained in an email to the Weekly.
The website FinAid (www.finaid.org) offers information for documented and undocumented students regarding financial aid and scholarships. FinAid states to be a “comprehensive source of student financial aid information, advice and tools—on or off the web,” and points to private scholarships as a “potential source of financial aid.” It also says that “If the student is a US Citizen but one or more parents are undocumented, the student is eligible for federal student aid.”
As Cuseo explained, Oxy is “independent of state requirements that govern the UC’s, CSU’s, and community colleges. The one important exception is the financial and academic qualifications set for awarding Cal Grants.”
According to Cuseo, Occidental offers two scholarships each year intended for undocumented students. “Our policy is to admit and fund up to two outstanding undocumented students to each entering class,” he said in an email response to the Weekly. Cuseo said it is possible for the College to have “eight undocumented students enrolled at the College” at any given time.
According to one recipient of the scholarship, which are not posted on the Oxy website or advertised in the College’s brochure, the award “covers almost full tuition.” It is renewable each year as long as the student maintains the status of an undocumented student. Once a student gains U.S. citizenship, they are no longer eligible to receive the scholarship. As a citizen, the student is eligible for government financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study awards.
“If an admission applicant is a US Citizen or Permanent Resident, the student is eligible for federal and state financial aid (in addition to Occidental scholarship and grant aid),” Cuseo said. “If the applicant is undocumented or an international student, the demonstrated need of the student is met with Occidental scholarship funds only. (In the case of international students a small Oxy loan also may be included.)”
Cuseo added, “For this reason, we can only admit and fund a very small number of
undocumented students and international students with demonstrated financial need.”
The scholarship for undocumented students differs from a separate scholarship that the College offers to international students. And the way the College goes about advertising each is different. “While we describe our limited scholarships for international students on our website and in our publications, we have made it a practice to share information about the opportunities for undocumented students through personal meetings and conversations with students and also with high school counselors and representatives of non-profit agencies,” Cuseo said. “Since we are able to enroll only one or two new undocumented students each fall, from over 50 applicants, we do not wish to encourage more applicants since we would then have to disappoint even more young people.”
The College has financial reasons for only allowing up to two undocumented students to receive Oxy scholarships. “The reason for limiting the number to two new students per year is the major expense associated with enrolling students who do not qualify for federal and state aid,” Cuseo said. Since undocumented students cannot receive any type of financial aid from the state or federal government, the financial aid that Occidental offers makes up the total for the student to attend the College.
Roxana Castro (junior) remembers applying for college as an undocumented student. “I didn’t know if and how I was going to do it,” she said. The biggest issue she said she faced when applying for college was trying to find the money to attend. As an undocumented student, Castro could not apply for government financial aid, nor could she opt for loans. “I needed money,” she said.
Castro recalls many colleges’ responses to her decision to apply. She said some colleges were less than optimistic about her decision to apply. “Some colleges would say ‘apply to lots of schools,'” she said.
When Castro learned of Oxy’s international scholarship, she decided to apply. “That was one of the reasons I applied here,” she said. “I just felt that because they had that policy it was a place I could fit into.”
She explained that she “lived in the Career Center for [her] senior year” and was in close contact with her high school guidance counselor, who was in constant communication with the Occidental Office of Admission. Castro said that she was fortunate to have had many people around her who were interested in her future. “A lot of people were concerned with my situation,” she said. Her letters of recommendation, she said, were all written by Oxy graduates, and even her guidance counselor was an Oxy graduate.
She also explained that because Oxy is a need-blind institution, meaning they do not take financial status into consideration when accepting students, she was more inclined to apply. “It was another factor that came into play,” she said.
Castro received Oxy’s scholarship intended for undocumented students in 2005, but because she gained residency during her first year at Occidental, the scholarship was replaced with federal and Oxy aid, as well as a work-study award.
Castro reiterated how lucky she felt having learned of the scholarship, but added that, for other students who do not know that the scholarship is offered, it is hard for them to believe they can attend college.
According to Cuseo, the College receives over 50 applicants from undocumented students each year, “so the competition for the two spots is very stringent.”
Student group MEChA/ALAS has also contributed in offering undocumented students financial aid though their Latino Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship, first established in 1995, first offered a $1,000 scholarship to one incoming first-year each year and was established by the 1994-1995 MEChA/ALAS E-board to offer financial assistance to first-year students who identify as Latino/a.
The scholarship is, and has always been, open to both documented and undocumented students. The intention, however, has always been to offer some form of financial assistance to undocumented students, even if not exclusively. “The founders of the scholarship definitely had undocumented students in mind when they established the scholarship,” Cesar Serrano (senior) said.
This year, the scholarship is undergoing a revamp as Serrano and Leo Magallon (senior) work to offer the scholarship to students who identify as Latino for each year they attend Oxy. Students would be eligible to renew the scholarship every year as long as they maintained a good academic record and serve as an active member in a cultural club on campus. Both Magallon and Serrano explained that they are still in the process of identifying the criteria for the scholarship. “We are not yet sure what the criteria will be,” Serrano said.
Although Castro was open to talk to the Weekly regarding her situation and acceptance to Occidental College as an undocumented student, there are some students who are hesitant to talk about their experiences as an undocumented student for fear of retaliation. There are also some students who have yet to gain their residency and still attend the College as undocumented students.
Castro spoke on her time at Occidental since receiving her acceptance letter. “I’ve been very lucky,” she said. She has remained involved in recruiting other undocumented students by offering information regarding the Oxy scholarship to student tour groups. “I just think that it’s information that should be open,” she said. “I think it’s my responsibility” to make people informed, she said. Castro will study abroad in Spain next semester.
Cuseo explained that this is not rare. “Our admission staff follows up with undocumented students to encourage them to participate in our spring open houses and to take advantage of our Multicultural Visit Program (MVP) in April,” he said. “They also are given special counseling by the financial aid staff and are invited to attend the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) to help in their transition to Occidental.”
This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.