‘UndocuGraduation’ celebrates immigrant students who beat the odds

Undocumented graduates from around Washington gathered to celebrate at an event hosted by the Washington Dream Coalition. (Photo by Jose Mariscal-Cruz)
Undocumented graduates from around Washington gathered to celebrate at an event hosted by the Washington Dream Coalition. (Photo by Jose Mariscal-Cruz)

The Washington Dream Coalition held their second annual UndocuGraduation at the Meadowbrook Community Center on Saturday.

The ceremony celebrated undocumented students from across the state who were graduating, in spite of the obstacles and inequities faced by immigrants in Washington.

According to The Urban Institute only 65,000 undocumented immigrant students graduate from high school every year nationally, and one one-fifth to one-sixth of undocumented immigrant students drop out of high school each year.

“Only a small percentage of undocumented students ever pursue higher education,” said a report by Educators For Fair Consideration — only five to ten percent according to the Urban Institute.

Most of the participants of the UndocuGraduation were among those select few — they not only made it to college or university against all odds, but graduated.

A few others in the ceremony were celebrating high school graduation and looking forward to bright futures as well.

After the ceremony, I was able to speak to a few of the graduates about their experience going through our state’s K-12 and higher education system and what their aspirations are for the future:

What will you be doing in 10 years?

Dulce Sigüenza, 22, University of Washington (Seattle)

That’s a long time from now, but I think by then one of my biggest goals is to have my own private practice with psychology

I want to help the community, specifically the Latino community with psychological assistance, or therapy because I know a lot of times we tend to think, at least where I’m from — I’m from Mexico, and even my family that lives there thinks that psychology and therapy aren’t really effective. You know, they think it’s only for ‘crazy’ people, right?…

I kind of want to change that perspective and say, ‘no,’ sometimes we do need to talk to somebody. Sometimes we go through depressive moments and depression, and other things that go through our mind that are actually real.

What challenges has your undocumented status presented for your education?

Cinthia Lilan-Vasquez, 22, Whitworth University (Spokane)

UndocuGraduation-2

Many undocumented people face a financial burden. We are very privileged now to have in state tuition and state funding, scholarships, and financial aid.

But when I started school it wasn’t that. I started having to find scholarships on my own and I was lucky. I was one of the few ones that was able to get a [private] full ride tuition scholarship.

So, that has to be one of the biggest challenges my undocumented status has brought me. And with that, also the rhetoric that, ‘you’re taking positions in our school that can go for someone else,’ and on top of that, ‘you’re taking the money.’

I especially got that from middle income individuals who were citizens that didn’t qualify for FAFSA but also weren’t ‘rich enough,’ or didn’t have the financial resources to make it on their own. And so I got a lot of pushback and a lot of negativity from my fellow colleagues that told me that you know, ‘how is it that you’re not even here legally and you’re taking away my funding and my scholarships and you’re taking a spot at this institution?’

So I think that was one of the hardest things, you know — on top of feeling isolated and like being by yourself, and like having to worry whether your parents are going to be there when you go back or if they’re going to be deported, and that extra baggage that comes with being an undocumented student.

Paola Ponce, 17, Kamiakin High School & Columbia Basin College (Tri-Cities)

Educational barriers. Some counselors would always say, ‘oh, undocumented students can’t go to college,’ or ‘can’t continue on.’ And that’s a lie — I found that out recently.

There have definitely been some challenges but I’ve always had support from a club I joined called Dreams Without Borders. So this club, we advocate for undocumented students on our campus at Colombia Basin College, and I found the best support group there. I met all my friends there. I found out about WAFSA and scholarships that I can apply to.

So I have definitely broken some of those barriers but definitely the biggest one is criticism from people in general who marginalize undocumented students.

More on financial aid for undocumented students:

Washington State is one of six states that have enacted tuition equity laws and state financial aid for undocumented immigrants (along with California, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Minnesota, according to this Tuition Equity for Undocumented Students map by United We Dream)

Two state laws established the conditions for undocumented students to attend public colleges and universities in Washington state and pay in-state tuition as well as receiving state financial aid:

HB 1079, which passed in 2003, set a number of requirements which undocumented students have to meet in order to be eligible to pay in-state tuition for college: they have to have lived in the state for at least three years and then graduate from a Washington state high school or earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. SB 6523 aka the Real Hope Act- was approved by the state Legislature in 2014. This bill allows undocumented students to receive state-funded financial aid for college if they qualify for in-state tuition under HB 1079.

This post was produced as part of the Globalist Youth Apprenticeship program. The program is funded in part by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and the Community Technology Fund.

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