Thanks to funds from the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, the Noble Network of Charter Schools will be extending up to 80 Pritzker Access Scholarships to undocumented graduating seniors who are college-bound and qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival. Each eligible student will be receiving up to 12,000 towards higher education, which, according to Aidé Acosta, DREAMer Supports Manager at Noble, are “in place of what they would have if they qualified for FAFSA and were Pell-eligible in the state of Illinois.” Students attending one of 18 partnered institutions can benefit from extra support financially, through mentorship programs, and through Noble’s own network of alumni coordinators. While the scholarship is responding to the needs of Noble’s own alumni pool, undocumented students nationwide are being barred from entering institutions of higher learning thanks primarily to their precarious legal and economic status.
According to a report by United We Dream, of the 65,000 undocumented students who have lived in the US for five years or longer and graduating from high school each year, 5 to 10 percent of these go on to enroll in an institution of higher education. Furthermore, only 1% of those who enroll end up graduating. These students are prohibited from accessing federal education benefits and, to make matters worse, are often denied in-state tuition. States such as Illinois have passed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Acts which initiate state private scholarship funds for undocumented student or provide community college waivers, albeit with somewhat restricting eligibility requirements. While these signify some measure progress, DREAM provisions hardly compete with the soaring cost of a college degree. Furthermore, they don’t focus on resolving the potential socio-emotional hardships which undergird undocumented students’ life experience.
“In 2015 when we announced to Noble students and families about this opportunity, the room was in silence and disbelief,” Aide told me, “now their families are seeing the reality of their DREAMers on college campuses.”
The “disbelief” Aide described reminded me of “imposter syndrome,” or feeling that despite your real talents and accomplishments you’re undeserving of due recognition. For many students– especially those first generation students of color –their presence in the academy feels like a stroke of luck or a complete accident. The irony, of course, is socially disadvantaged students necessarily have to work harder in order to get to college. In a recent article for the Atlantic, educator Andrew Simmons talked about how his undocumented students “are generally more likely than their more privileged citizen counterparts to resist the idea that the proverbial deck is stacked in favor of a lucky few…they have faith that a hard-working talented individual can beat the odds to find personal and financial success.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing David, who’s attending Wabash College on the Pritzker Access Scholarship. His family migrated to the US from Ecuador as a response to dire economic conditions. His mother was a journalist, his father worked in manufacturing, both of them holding Bachelors, but they realized there wouldn’t be ample opportunity in their child’s future if they stayed where they were. David tells me this is a debt he is working to repay. He told me he feels incredibly thankful for the scholarship, noting that without it he wouldn’t be able to attend college without it.
“It was a real surprise when I found out I got the scholarship. I was really happy because it was like all my work during these past four years was paying off,” said David, “I realized that if it wasn’t for this scholarship, I would not have been able to go past high school.”
Currently, his major is undecided. But this doesn’t mean he’s idle. David’s joined a fraternity on campus. He’s been through an intensive three week leadership program. He’s on the verge of interviewing for youth mentorship and marketing internships. When I interviewed him, he was in the midst of tackling a screenplay analysis of Much Ado About Nothing. He tells me that immersing himself in the college experience has helped him overcome initial nervousness and fear of judgement from his peers.
“Once I started talking more in my classes– when I was encouraged to talk –I began to feel less self conscious about my accent. I didn’t come to college to be self conscious about who I am. I came to build connections with students and professors. I came to college to realize that we all have our own hardships, and that I am not alone,” said David.
David attributes his confidence in great part to the education he received at Noble. Specifically, he felt that “the teachers at Noble care about you– they ask how you’re doing, they want you to be prepared, they’ll sacrifice their saturdays to teach you about math and help improve your ACT scores.”
Scholarships such as Pritzker Access– ones which, as Aidé puts it, “provide students with an equal opportunity to attend schools which match their academic profile” –are unfortunately rare for students like David. Initiatives such as these and DREAM Acts should be seen as entrances or beginnings for more inclusive social policies.