Undocumented students help peers navigate college

For teenagers who grow up in this country as illegal immigrants, the path to college can seem impossible.

They don't qualify for federal grants or loans. They can't do work-study. Depending on the school, they might have to pay out-of-state tuition. Sometimes their high school counselors tell them just to forget about college.

But a group of students is showing their peers it can be done. They've created a first-of-its kind non-profit called Navigate, to teach others how to get in to and pay for college.

Navigate, which stands for Necessary And Valuable Insight to Gain Access Toward Education, doesn't have an office. It's more like an underground railroad with a website.

Denise is a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and a founder of Navigate. MPR News has agreed not to use her last name because she fears deportation. Denise estimates she's done about 50 presentations to high school students, parents and educators since Navigate started in 2007.

"In our outreach presentations, we hand out folders to families, there's a list of colleges and universities where they can apply, where they're more welcoming," she said.

At each presentation, Denise explains the college application process and shares a list of scholarships that don't require students to provide a Social Security number or fill out the federal financial aid form. She hopes to prevent what happened to her as a high school senior.

Denise, 22, entered the United States illegally from Mexico with her family when she was in sixth grade. She said she was an A and B student, who had dreamed of becoming a lawyer or a doctor since kindergarten. When she was in high school, she made an appointment with her guidance counselor to find out how to apply to college.

"She asked if she can help me apply to a college but then she asked me if I was a documented student, if I had documents," Denise said. "So I said 'no,' and then, that was it. There was no moving forward, or looking for other scholarships or other opportunities."

The day before Denise's graduation, her English as a Second Language counselor helped her apply to MCTC, a two-year community college.

It's not against the law for a student like Denise to attend college. There's a long list of public and private colleges in Minnesota that welcome students regardless of their legal status in this country.

Most of Minnesota's state colleges and universities charge a flat-rate tuition. But the University of Minnesota, with the exception of the Crookston and Morris campuses, charges out-of-state tuition to students who aren't legal residents.

Kris Lockhart, vice president for equity and diversity at the University of Minnesota, said its campuses are open to any student who can succeed, regardless of citizenship status. But, Lockhart said, the university remains out of reach for many undocumented students because of cost. Federal law prevents the university from giving them scholarships.

Lockhart said students not legally in the country don't receive much help traversing a confusing intersection of federal, state and institutional rules.

"There are people who are reluctant to talk about the issues," she said. "There isn't a lot of shared, accurate info about what their status is, about what their rights are, about what federal government and the Department of Homeland Security think about the rights of the students to be in institutions."

Lockhart sees Navigate as filling an important gap. Every year, a core group of 20 to 25 volunteers now reach 600 to 1,000 potential students, their parents and educators through their presentations. They hold monthly networking meetings to build leadership skills, and give scholarships.

Denise's full tuition at MCTC is paid for by a scholarship from Navigate, which earns its money through foundation grants and private fundraising.

This spring, Denise will graduate from MCTC.

Because she cannot legally work in the United States, at every presentation she gives, she said, someone asks, "What are you going to do after you graduate?"

If Congress were to pass what's called the Dream Act, a student like Denise, brought here as a child, who graduated from high school and enrolled in college, would have a shot at citizenship. A comprehensive overhaul of the nation's federal immigration laws also could change her situation.

"If the Dream Act hasn't passed, or if I'm still undocumented, then I'm going to continue with my master's [degree]," Denise said. "I just think I'm going to keep on educating myself and volunteering with Navigate and other organizations."

Someday Denise would like to open a nonprofit youth center to help children. She said if she can't do it here, she'll make it happen in Mexico. Her entrepreneurial confidence comes in part from building and running Navigate.

She does have another goal that remains unfinished. She'd like to go back to her old high school someday where the counselor told her she couldn't go to college, and make her presentation.

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