A powerful concept packed into a single word.
This was the word one young person chose to describe what education means to him when asked by Secretary Duncan and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis as part of a reoccurring Student Voices meeting at ED headquarters. The frank conversation between the Secretaries and the group of young advocates largely revolved around the obstacles undocumented youth face while living in the United States, particularly limited access to higher education.
Several of the students discussed how difficult it was to be a “DREAMer”—a label derived from the “DREAM Act” that the students use to describe undocumented young people who have lived in the U.S. from a very young age. The students explained their frustration and disappointment that they cannot fulfill their dreams of a college degree once they graduate high school, good grades and hard work are rendered invalid the day they learn they can’t apply to colleges or scholarships without having a social security number.
With estimates of approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduating from American high schools annually and no viable pathway to legal status, this is not an isolated problem.
DREAMers’ obstacles to higher education are myriad. Even if accepted, most colleges and universities require undocumented students to pay non-resident or out-of-state tuition – a prohibitive cost. They get no access to federal financial aid (this includes Work Study and Pell Grants) and their chances for scholarships are narrow at best.
“I got in to a top school,” said one now non-student with tears welling up in his eyes. “But I deferred because I don’t have a way of paying for it. I can’t apply for financial aid, so Work Study is out.”
There is irony in the fact that the U.S. has an abudance of undocumented students who are extremely motivated, informed, who earn excellent grades, and who have developed marketable skills.
And yet, we are turning away promising nation-builders in droves.
As teachers, we work tirelessly to prepare our students for their next steps in life – documented or undocumented. It’s as if these fearless young people are on a starting block and we rally them to bound forward enthusiastically with all the promises of a college education and the hopes of a solid career.
“Ready!…Set!…” But instead of yelling “Go!” we ask them to take one step back because, while they did every single thing we asked of them over their school career (and they did it well), it’s still not enough.
I ask myself why we spend so much energy on creating more hoops for talented young DREAMers to jump through. Why not spend it finding ways for them to connect with opportunities they worked so hard to glean?
Claire Jellinek is a 9th-12th grade social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.