Adapting to life in the United States was not easy for Jacki C. She was 14 when she made the trip from Puebla, Mexico, with her sister and uncle to join her parents, who had immigrated to New York illegally a year earlier.
After attending high school in Washington Heights, she wanted to further her studies, but guidance counselors could offer little advice on applying to colleges without immigration papers.
“Undocumented high school students are often misinformed by their guidance counselors and teachers,” said Jacki, who asked that her full name be withheld. “They have no training in dealing with these kids´ challenges, so they tell them their only option is to forget about college, they should just get their GED and then get a job.”
That’s why Jacki introduced the mentorship program, a pilot project of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, to ensure that young illegal immigrants learn about their options to attend college in New York and that they get the help they need to take these chances. Jacki co-founded the New York State Youth Leadership Council in 2007 to push for equal access to higher education for undocumented immigrants.
About 765,000 students between 13 and 18 years old arrived in the United States illegally in their early teens, and 65,000 students without immigration status graduate from U.S. high schools every year, according to a 2007 study by the Migration Policy Institute.
The youth group´s program pairs high school students with illegal immigrant status with mentors who are also without papers and have been through the challenges of applying to, and paying for, college.
“That’s what makes this program so unique,” said Jacki. “The mentors have been there and the students can see themselves reflected and can say, `If they did it while undocumented, I can do it, too.´”
In its first year, the program served a small group of eight mentors and nine students, seven of them now enrolled in colleges, some even with small scholarships. Students who showed the most need for support were chosen to participate. The first cycle started in January, when high school seniors were paired with their mentors.
Although New York State passed a 2002 law providing illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition rates, few students are aware of this, Jacki said. Even those who are often find themselves overwhelmed by the application process, different than for students with legal status.
“There are residency forms and affidavits to complete and students who don´t know how to go about this are charged international fees, which are two or three times more,” she said. “Undocumented students don´t qualify for financial aid and when they can´t afford to pay these rates, they feel like college is beyond their dreams.”
Janeth, 18, one of the first students to go through the mentor program, arrived from Mexico at age 2 and has lived most of her life in East Harlem. Surprisingly, she was one of only two undocumented students in her high school, where she felt the teachers and principal didn´t have time for her. While Janeth´s friends were applying to Ivy League schools, she simply felt lost.
“There was no one who wanted to guide me,” she said. “It´s hard to meet people like yourself who have the same challenges, and you can´t go around telling people you are undocumented.”
Janeth´s mentor, Bernice, helped her learn more about scholarship options and campus life. Now in her first year at CUNY’s Bronx community college, Janeth wants to major in psychology and hopes to mentor other students someday.
“I know, especially in my community, kids don´t apply to college when they´re undocumented,” she said. “I would like to help them get a different perspective.”
In light of the growing debate around equal access to education, more universities are making it clear that they welcome students from all backgrounds.
“CUNY is open to all, and its services are available for students regardless of their immigration status,” said Sofia Carreño, spokeswoman for CUNY Citizenship Now, which offers immigration services to students and to the community.
She added that while undocumented students don’t qualify for state and federal financial aid, CUNY has some privately-financed scholarships for those who show outstanding academic performance.
After moving to the United States from Quito, Ecuador, at 7, Gabriel Aldana, 24, is finally on his way to getting a green card thanks to his U.S.-born brother, who turned 21 this year and can now sponsor his family´s citizenship applications. Unaware of the in-state tuition law, Gabriel got his finance degree from Baruch College because it was more affordable than paying out-of-state tuition at one of the colleges he preferred. Only after he graduated and became involved in immigrant youth advocacy did he recognize his missed opportunity.
“I thought I was the only student in this situation,” said Gabriel, a recruiter at the non-profit AIDS organization GMHC. “But then I connected with people who were in the same situation, pushing this image of what it means to be undocumented and the injustice of not having access to higher education.”
Marco, the student he mentors, has enrolled in college, but Gabriel maintains contact and once a month takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, prompting Marco to take an art history course. They also work to expand their vocabularies by regularly texting each other new words and definitions.
The Department of Education does train high school guidance counselors to deal with students who are illegal immigrants,said spokesman Thomas Francis.
“Our goal is to have every counselor provide the guidance students need to move on to college and beyond,” he said. “We have an extensive training program available for counselors so they can be prepared, and we encourage them to work with individual students to address whatever questions they might have.”
Jacki hopes to expand the mentorship program to all five boroughs and to individual high schools. The group is also working to start “college clinics,” one-day events where mentors visit high schools and set up stations where students can work on their college applications.
Through the mentoring program, the group wants to push for the state and federal passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that was reintroduced in the Senate in March 2011 after being first introduced in 2001, which would give permanent residence status to illegal immigrants who attended college in the United States.
“With a DREAM team on campuses,” Jacki said,”we can teach undocumented students to drop the fear and stop being afraid of their status.”