As college acceptance letters poured in for Diana Rodriguez during her senior year at Benito Juarez Community Academy, so did scholarship offers based on her straight A’s and considerable involvement in school activities.
The college and career coach at Juarez kept a tally of the scholarships worth a whopping $1.2 million.
“Nothing stands in her way,” Juarez Principal Juan Carlos Ocon told me. “Obstacles? She loves tearing them down.”
She faced one pretty big barrier. Rodriguez, 18, is a Dreamer, a young adult and unauthorized immigrant brought to the United States as a child. Dreamers do not qualify for federal- or state-based financial aid programs. They rely on privately funded scholarships.
But Rodriguez, who wants to become a surgeon, will head to Pomona College in Claremont, California, later this summer. This week Pomona was ranked seventh by Forbes in its list of top colleges for 2016. It came in just behind Stanford, Williams College, Princeton, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale.
“I have been wanting to go to that school since my sophomore year,” Rodriguez said. “Understanding the school’s rigor, how hard it is to get into and how much people take pride in going there, it had to be a school I had to go to.”
She accepted a scholarship that the school’s college coach, Alfonso Diaz, said is worth about $230,000 over four years from the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit that rewards public high school students with stellar grades and community involvement.
I’m guessing she impressed Posse with a long list of extracurricular activities. The one that impressed me most was Monarcas, a group she co-founded at school to mentor fellow unauthorized immigrants. By selling Mexican pastries, hot chocolate as well as horchata smoothies, the group raised more than $5,000 in college scholarship money for other undocumented immigrants at the school. It helped that teachers at Juarez often tossed in extra dollars when they bought food from the group, Rodriguez said.
Juarez serves a large Hispanic population in the Pilsen neighborhood. The school’s principal, Ocon, said he, teachers and counselors work extra hard to convince low-income families and undocumented immigrants that college is within reach. For some who live in poverty, scholarships and financial aid seem too good to be true.
Rodriguez, the school’s salutatorian, led the effort to make Juarez students aware of scholarships available to undocumented immigrants. She took over a bulletin board at the school to share news about them.
“I needed to give back and make sure I’m not the only one going,” she said of college. “I want to make sure everyone else is moving up as well.”
Since I started writing this column four years ago, I have met a number of disillusioned Dreamers trying to hang on to hope that they could succeed in spite of being undocumented. Lately, I am meeting Dreamers with more optimistic and confident outlooks.
The game-changer was President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. His 2012 executive action gives temporary legal status to Dreamers, which allows them to work legally and move around the country without fear of deportation. It’s a short-term fix, one the next president must continue.
Without DACA, “I wouldn’t be open to doing a lot of these things,” Rodriguez said.
It’s safe to say she is going places.
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