The Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute Blog
Blog Post by Luz Aguirre (LaGuardia Community College, 2015 Becaria)
The Undocumented Pursuit for Higher Education
I recently came back from Exploring Transfer, a five-week, six-credit program at the prestigious Vassar College. I knew about the program through my mentor, pay-it-forward and CUNY Becas recipient Amalia Rojas. The program touched relevant issues such as bioethics, economics of poverty, politics of imprisonment and race in the United States. I got a lot more out of the program than an intellect boost. I am majoring in Philosophy at LaGuardia Community College and need to make a decision about where to transfer. I am not your typical college student. I am a 36-year-old undocumented single mother of a 14-year-old. It took me a while to get to college because it was impossible, for a long time, to come up with the money to start college. I wanted to have enough to at least cover my initial year.
President Obama instituted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, A two-year work permit and exemption from deportation for certain young people. Now renamed Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. You have to give credit to the Department of Homeland Security for the name, it knows how to intimidate. In these three years, a lot of scholarships for DACA students have been springing up. It is astounding to see how much DACAmented students are soaring. In December of 2014, Obama announced the expansion of DACA for those of us who were too old to fall under regular DACA (the cut-off age is thirty-one). In February 18, 2015, just as it was going to be implemented, a judge in Texas issued an order that blocked it. As much as I wanted it, I was not surprised. As an immigrant, I felt the backlash after 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks, it was likely that a path to status adjustment was opening for the undocumented. American politics changed and started criminalizing immigrants with a vengeance, legal and undocumented. The Department of Homeland Security is the one that manages terrorism and immigration. As a consequence immigration has become a synonym of terrorism.
I am considered an out-of-state student, even though I have lived in New York most of my life. Within the City University of New York (CUNY) system, undocumented people are automatically considered out-of-state if it takes them more than five years after high school to seek higher education—not so DACA holders. For a typical student, tuition for a year at a CUNY college is about $5,000. My first year was around $14,000. Undocumented students cannot fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) profile blocking them from financial aid. DACA students can only fill it out to get their Student Aid Report (SAR), which determines eligibility for non-federal financial aid. I am often on the lookout for scholarships, but the pool is miniscule and competitive. I have begun to diversify my chances by looking out for funded credit programs, such as the before mentioned, Exploring Transfer program. Tuition, room, and board were fully funded. I saved about $2,000 on tuition and books and a month's worth of rent and food. I almost cried when I got it. Getting and holding a job that pays a fair wage is hard, and doing it while undocumented is almost impossible. We live in a world where everything that can be used against you to exploit you is fair game, all in the name of capitalism.
As I weight my options for a four-year college, I thought I had to stay within the CUNY system since private colleges are more expensive than what I am paying now. I have also come to love the LaGuardia community. State University of New York (SUNY) is another option. As long as you can prove you attended two years and graduated from a New York high school, you are eligible for in-state-tuition. Many private colleges and universities have need-blind aid. Meaning, they have private money and do not care if you are undocumented. If you are bright, they will try to get you. As long as a college has a College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile, it is likely that they do not care about your status. A CSS profile is like FAFSA, but unlike FAFSA it awards financial aid from sources outside of the federal government.
As my search deepens, I also have to take into account my nontraditional student situation. Many colleges have nontraditional student programs. These programs are design for older adults who manage many responsibilities. Some of these programs are The School of General Studies of Columbia University, The NYU School of Professional Studies Paul McGhee Division, Frances Perkins program at Mount Holyoke, and the Ada Comstock Scholars Program at Smith College. Mount Holyoke College and Smith College, both in Massachusetts, have the added feature of being all women colleges. I would love to be in an environment that fosters women's voices.
NYU recently launched a financial aid program to help undocumented students. Mount Holyoke College considers undocumented and DACA students for both merit scholarships and need-based financial aid. Brown University in Rhode Island accepts undocumented students, and these must indicate their interest in financial aid as part of their admission's application. Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University and Yale University have some of the biggest endowments and are open to undocumented students. A problem with private colleges is that they cater to students with money. I have heard from many low-income people who suffer a type of dislocation at these schools. Another problem is that we are not taught to aim that high. High schools for people of color in New York are run like jails. We are treated like criminals in a system that constantly tell us that we are not good enough to aim for these colleges or go for top degrees. I once came out screaming of a parent association meeting at my daughter's middle school. We were being encouraged to send them to the graduation ceremony and prom because "it might be the last one they attend”. Implying that the kids might not graduate from high school. We were also encouraged to start looking into the process of enrollment for technical schools. Losing my composure is the least of my problems, sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind the way this system treats people of color.
The immigration landscape is changing. Once upon a time, there was no support for undocumented people going into higher education. Even now, there is still a lot of misinformation. When I was applying to LaGuardia Community College in the summer of 2014, everything seemed to play against me. I made many lines, repeatedly filled forms and was sent all over the place. Nobody knew what to do with me. It was so stressful I broke down. I refused to state my case one more time to another uninformed person. I demanded a supervisor and an immigration lawyer, which I knew they must have in staff. It is not easy, but nothing of worth is easy. For my part, I will keep researching and reaching out to admissions people to assess my chances. Everyone’s story is different and it reflects different in different environments. Luck plays a part in your future, but so does actively seeking opportunities.