February 2019

Making My Way: Is Postsecondary Possible?

By Daniela Gaona
When I was a young girl, my mother often skipped dinner so that she could send me to a decent school in Colombia. As a single mother, she knew education was the only thing that would make my life better than hers. Raising a child in the midst of a civil war wasn’t easy; guerillas controlled every aspect of life and violence against women was often overlooked. In 2005, after leaving an abusive relationship and grieving the death of my uncle by the FARC (revolutionary armed forces of Colombia), my mother brought me to the United States.
 
When I arrived in the U.S. at age nine, I was thrilled to be able to focus on my education, safe from persecution and sexual abuse at the hands of my family. I fell in love with education and worked hard to make my mother’s sacrifices worthwhile. My teachers saw potential in me and encouraged me to apply for the magnet program in Florida. In 2014, I graduated with honors from one of the best high schools in the country, Stanton College Preparatory. But on my graduation day, while my peers were celebrating their acceptances to prestigious universities, I sat at home crying and wondering how a college degree could be possible for someone like me. Even though I had the grades and community service requirements, I did not qualify for any scholarships or financial aid because of my immigration status. My mother and I spent thousands of dollars over the course of 13 years trying to claim asylum. Unfortunately, due to poor legal counsel and the complexity of the immigration system, our pleas were denied and we were left undocumented. My high school counselors simply did not know how to help me.
 
I vowed to not let my immigration status get in the way of my education, so my mother and I worked multiple jobs so that I could get my associate’s and eventually my bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Florida. I graduated with honors and was accepted into my dream school, Johns Hopkins University, to pursue a master’s in counseling. My mother and I were thrilled at my opportunity to work toward a degree at one of the best institutions in the country – but our celebration didn’t last long.
 
On May 21, 2018, after a routine check-in with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), my mother was handcuffed and detained. After a long month of fighting the system and paying lawyers who desperately tried to get my mother out of detention, my mother was deported back to Colombia on June 25, 2018. I was devastated. My mother was my only support in this country and I knew getting my masters from Hopkins would be impossible without her help.
 
Johns Hopkins made it clear that they had no financial assistance for recipients of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, known as DREAMers. I couldn’t understand how such a wealthy institution that had been so vocal of their support of DREAMers in the media could leave students like me stranded. Desperate, I began a Gofundme campaign where friends, peers and church members in Florida contributed to my tuition. I worked as many hours as possible, hoping to be able to attend at least one class in the fall semester. I reached out to multiple banks, but was told that they do not give loans to DREAMers because of their unstable immigration status. I felt completely helpless, but I was determined. I began lobbying the school through social media and in person, meeting with any representative of the school that I could. I also reached out to local newspapers in hopes of spreading the word about my campaign.
 
The week before classes started, the Baltimore Sun agreed to publish a story about my campaign. Soon after Hopkins found out about the publication, I received an email that read, “Because of the exceptional circumstances that you and your mother are experiencing, the Dean has agreed to offer you tuition assistance to cover one class per semester.” It was an incredibly bittersweet moment as I thought, “Would I even be going to school if my mother wasn’t deported? Would I be going to school if I hadn’t shared my trauma for the world to see?” The answer to these questions is a heartbreaking no.
 
The School Counselor's Role
 
DREAMers have to overcome a lot of challenges to become college graduates but college is possible. The best advice I can give to school counselors who are trying to help students in my situation is to not assume that every one of your students is a U.S. citizen. The immigration system in America is extremely difficult to navigate. Although it’s viewed in terms of black and white by most Americans, it operates in various shades of grey. Some students may have work permits or temporary protections, others may have green cards or be U.S. citizens, but all students deserve the chance to get a college degree. Create an environment where students feel comfortable discussing their immigration status with you. Familiarize yourself with your state’s tuition laws for DREAMers and research what type of financial aid, if any, they are eligible for. Explore resources such as immigrantsrising.org that offers lists of scholarships that do not require proof of citizenship.
 
If all else fails, create opportunities for students to raise money for tuition through fundraisers – bake sales, school events, car washes, etc. Speak to community leaders about creating scholarships that do not discriminate based on immigration status. Reach out to universities to encourage them to make their merit-based scholarships available to DREAMers. Do not dismiss students who ask you for help and always keep my favorite motto in mind: Aut inveniam viam aut faciam…I shall either find a way or make one.
 
Daniela Gaona is a DACA recipient and a student in the school counseling master’s program at Johns Hopkins University.