Partnership offers more opportunities for undocumented students

Mason  has partnered with TheDream.US, a private scholarship fund that helps undocumented students across the United States attend college.

Announced on Aug. 28, the partnership will allow first-time students and community college graduates entering Mason to apply for scholarships of up to $25,000.

Mason is the first four-year university in Virginia to partner with TheDream.US, which was founded in 2013 by former Washington Post Chairman and CEO Don Graham, former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, and Munoz & Company Chairman and Chief Creative Officer Henry Muñoz. Prior to Mason, Northern Virginia Community College was the only participating institution in the state. TheDream.US now works with more than 20 colleges around the country.

“Our goal is that students, once they start [at Mason], won’t have to stop or drop out because of financial reasons,” said Rose Pascarell, University Life Vice President.

Pascarell was one of many Mason officials involved in conversations with TheDream.US representatives to arrange the partnership.

“[The scholarship] is certainly in the best interest of who our students are at Mason,” Pascarell said.

In addition to meeting Mason’s general admission requirements, potential scholarship recipients must demonstrate financial need and have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status approval.

Implemented by the Department of Homeland Security on an executive order from President Obama in 2012, the DACA Initiative grants a two-year, renewable reprieve to undocumented immigrants who are under 31 years of age, entered the U.S. before age 15 and have lived in the country for at least five consecutive years, among other eligibility requirements. The initiative allows approved undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits and a driver’s license, which would otherwise require them to present a social security number.

The policy change gained additional weight for undocumented students in Virginia when State Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced in April that DACA-approved students can now qualify for in-state tuition. These students – often referred to as DREAMers after a proposed piece of congressional legislation that would give legal status to undocumented high school students – previously had to apply to college as international students and paid out-of-state prices, even though most of them came to the United States when they were young and grew up in Virginia.

“When you talk to DREAMers that are trying to go to college, the main issue that they face is the financial obstacle,” said Henry Lopez, an undocumented student and vice president of Mason DREAMers.

Mason DREAMers is a student organization dedicated to spreading awareness of immigration-related issues.

“The difficult part with being undocumented is that we don’t qualify for…federal financial aid, so that obstacle is the number one reason why students are discouraged or don’t even go to college at all,” Lopez said.

Although undocumented students are still ineligible to fill out the FAFSA, the form needed to apply for federal aid, Mason’s partnership with TheDream.US and Herring’s policy change will help lessen the economic burden on these students who often come from working-class families, according to the Mason DREAMers website.

Mason DREAMers webmaster Carola Gorena Morales recalled first hearing about the Mason-TheDream.US partnership from a fellow group member who shared the news through a message to the whole organization.

“I didn’t expect it, but I’m glad that the partnership happened,” Morales said.

Morales has mentored undocumented high school students in the Northern Virginia area, helping them with their college and scholarship applications. She says many of them expressed interest in Mason for its proximity and relative affordability compared to other state and private colleges, but the lack of available financial aid prevented them from attending.

“Something like this, sort of like a grant for undocumented students, would have helped a lot of them,” Morales said.

According to the registrar’s and student life offices, Mason has between 60 and 80 undocumented students. An exact number is difficult to find because many students do not report their undocumented status or applied as international students before the attorney general’s new policy allowed them to qualify for in-state tuition.

“Part of [Mason’s] mission is to be accessible,” Pascarell said. “Any private partnerships that really open the door to students or expand pathways to students, particularly students who have great economic need, we would want to explore.”

Pascarell said that the university agreed to the partnership after holding a series of meetings to vet the scholarship fund and ensure that its requirements conform with state policies for undocumented students.

“Mason is a state university, the largest public university in the state of Virginia, so we’re absolutely consistent with all the Commonwealth’s guidelines,” Pascarell said.

While TheDream.US scholarships are aimed toward undocumented students, Mason students as a whole could benefit from the partnership. Mason DREAMers Recruitment Chair Ana Tobar is not an undocumented student, but after living in a predominantly white area before college, she became involved with Mason DREAMers and the Hispanic Student Association to reconnect with her roots.

“It gives Mason a better sense of community with such a diverse school…by including and being open to a diverse student body including undocumented students,” Tobar said, adding that many undocumented students are heavily involved in activities both on and off campus.

Though Pascarell and Lopez both say they have heard overwhelmingly positive responses to the partnership from university faculty and students, the presence and acceptance of undocumented students in colleges is an issue that brings up a lot of confusion and disagreement given how closely it ties into other aspects of immigration policies.

“A lot of the times the argument is that money is being granted to undocumented students as opposed to citizens,” Morales said. “Or they’re just identified as illegals without realizing the money is going to legalized DACA students who have temporary residence in this country.”

In addition to facing financial obstacles to getting into college, undocumented students often have difficulties finding resources and support once they get into an institution. Incoming students frequently rely on their peers for assistance and mentoring.

Morales mentioned an encounter with a woman on campus who did not know about the DREAMers or that there are undocumented students at Mason.

“You can expect that, because it’s sort of a hidden topic and a hidden identity,” Morales said. “But I think it’s good for people to be exposed to it and to try to learn more about who we are.”

Mason DREAMers hopes to raise awareness about undocumented students and other immigration issues. The organization held its first Dream Assembly on Sept. 10 in George’s, where students could learn about immigration politics and how to become more involved. Mason DREAmers also hosts UndocuAlly trainings designed to inform people who are not undocumented students about the community and how they can help.

Morales says that, while many students have attended the group’s meetings and the UndocuAlly trainings, they plan on doing more to educate and involve faculty members and administrators.

“Not a lot of faculty have shown interest,” Morales said. “Having them be more active about it and try to be more accommodating to undocumented students would help.”

Furthermore, neither Mason’s partnership with TheDream.US nor the state’s policy allowing DACA students to get in-state tuition are permanent solutions. Because DACA is an executive order and must be renewed every two years, there is no guarantee that the next presidential administration will continue it. Even with private scholarships, a lack of access to federal financial aid makes paying for tuition a challenge for many undocumented students.

“They aren’t able to fill out the FAFSA, so I think that we as an institution need to consider that and give out even more scholarships to DREAMers,” Tobar said.

In the meantime, Mason DREAMers is currently developing its own scholarship fund through the crowd sourcing website Indiegogo.

Lopez says that the group is still working on logistics, but their goal is to have scholarships of around $1,000 or $2,000 available starting either in the spring semester or next fall. The Indiegogo campaign will include a video he produced of students relating their experiences.

“It’s the stories that are at the heart of the immigration issue,” Lopez said. “I feel like…a lot of political, general things that are being thrown out there that are misleading and paint an erroneous picture of what exactly is going on.”