When I was 14, my parents told me that I was an undocumented immigrant. As I entered West Chicago High School, I realized this would make it difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for me to afford to get a college degree.
There are thousands of intelligent and talented undocumented students who are looking to advance their dreams through higher education and give back to their families and this country. Unfortunately, many of them are unable to live up to their full potential because of financial roadblocks standing in the way.
Now, as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I am organizing with the Student Access Coalition, a group of students and organizations across the state working to expand access to state financial aid to undocumented students. We relaunched our campaign last week in support of the Student Access Bill. We are back and ready to fight harder than ever to get this done.
Like many, I have my own immigration story. It started in the Philippines. My younger sister was born with Down syndrome and a rare heart defect, and the only place we could find the care my sister so desperately needed was in the U.S.
My parents hadn’t realized that the duration of treatment in the U.S. would exceed our one-year visas. We desperately explored all of the pathways to becoming permanent residents, but we were ineligible. Driven by love for my sister, my parents decided that we would stay in the U.S. without green cards, and we gave up our lives back in the Philippines to live as undocumented immigrants.
My sister and I grew up in this country, went to school and made friends. I took honors and Advanced Placement classes at my high school and participated in sports and volunteer activities. But I was still worried that even if I were admitted to a university, I wouldn’t be able to afford college, as undocumented students are ineligible for most types of financial aid.
As I was applying to colleges my senior year of high school, my father suffered a major heart attack. My family was devastated and even more stressed about my upcoming college expenses. I was sitting in the hospital by my father’s bed when I found out that I was admitted to the University of Illinois. It was a bittersweet feeling — I was happy to have gotten in but so worried that the cost of tuition would keep me from attending.
However, with our faith, his determination, and the doctors’ care, my father recovered and pushed his body to the physical limits to make sure I could afford college. If it weren’t for my father’s tenacity, I absolutely would not be at the U of I today.
Studies show that most Illinois jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020. And according to the Immigration Policy Center, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, but at most only 6,500 enroll in colleges and universities. Around 26 percent of Illinois’ undocumented population was 24 or younger in 2014. If our legislation is passed, about 136,000 young people will be able to more seriously consider applying to college. If our state allows these students to access financial aid, college will become a reality for thousands more students who will go on to work in Illinois and give back to our economy.
This country was founded on the principle that — regardless of background — those willing to put in the work should have an equal chance to succeed. For families like mine, that means being able to access financial aid programs that could lessen the burden of paying for college and be the difference between completing a degree and dropping out. It’s time for our state lawmakers to ensure that Illinois’ undocumented high school graduates can go on to study at one of the state’s colleges or universities with financial aid.
Vishal Disawar is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is studying computer science and political science.