Steps to College conference helps DREAMERS in education path

02/01/2014 6:04 PM

02/01/2014 7:10 PM

Hordes of families filed in and out of the Mexican Consulate in North Natomas on Saturday, waiting patiently to fill out applications for financial aid – an option only recently made available to undocumented students determined to attend college regardless of legal status.

More than 3,000 California high school students and their families received personalized guidance and bagfuls of pamphlets from school recruiters Saturday at the third annual Steps to College conference. The consulate, the California Student Aid Commission, UC Davis and other groups sponsored the event.

Students without proof of citizenship have been eligible for non-state financial aid since the passage of the California Dream Act in 2011, but it was only in January 2013 that they became eligible for state money such as Cal Grants, institutional scholarships and community college fee waivers.

It’s all part of CSAC’s Cash for College program, which provides up to $9,000 to California high school students who meet the GPA requirements and can display financial need on either the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or the Dream Act application. Undocumented students need only to prove they have started on the path to citizenship to be eligible for state aid.

“These are great options that never existed in the past,” said Kurt Zimmer of CSAC. “We’ve been fighting for a long time to have a program like this.”

Perla Zapata, an undocumented Highlands High School senior who came to the United States at age 3, is determined to be the first in her family to go to college. She attended the conference with both of her parents and five younger siblings, who gathered around an iPad for more than an hour as Zimmer helped her fill out the Dream Act application.

“At first I thought I’d go back to Mexico, but then I started to learn about the opportunities here,” she said. “The thought of being able to go to college and to be able to pay for it – it feels really good.”

Recent numbers from CSAC report that more than 17,000 students handed in applications during the 2013-14 academic year, more than 8,000 of whom received Cal Grants.

At Saturday’s conference, students received information about state scholarships and privately funded Latino-specific scholarships from organizations such as Cien Amigos, La Familia and the Association of Raza Educators.

Jose Ballesteros of Raza Educators said smaller scholarships like these are necessary to make up for a lack of available state funding for undocumented students.

“The funding there for undocumented students is somewhat limited,” he said. “It’s there, but it’s first-come, first-served and they’re the last priority.”

Seven Mexican universities were represented at the fair, offering a college experience that Consulate General Carlos González Gutiérrez said is sometimes more affordable and accessible for Mexican nationals.

Juan Muratalla, a Ripon High School senior who was perusing the CETYS Universidad materials, said he would like to go to Mexico for financial reasons, but would struggle with the language barrier. Muratalla was born in the United States and learned Spanish in high school, but still feels connected to his heritage.

“When I go over there, I feel more comfortable,” he said. “Here you bump into someone and they give you a disgusted look. There, even if you don’t know them, they say, ‘Hi.’ ”

Only 7 percent of Latino males in the U.S. go to college, a number that González Gutiérrez said can be greatly improved by wider dispersal of information and more accessible funding. The consulate has launched its own private scholarship fund, which last year provided 186 students with a total of $150,000 for school.

“There’s a significant gap to be filled,” he said, “and I think it is our responsibility as a society to help young Mexican Americans and Latinos to get to college. I think we at the consulate want to do our share.”

While the path to education has gotten easier, attaining citizenship remains difficult. Three immigration workshops at the conference addressed the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which protects anyone brought to the U.S. before age 16 from deportation for up to two years. Neither DACA nor the Dream Act ensures permanent legal status.

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