Karen Franco remembers the first time she stepped inside an American classroom.
She was 14 years old, undocumented, and didn’t speak a word of English. She and her mother, fleeing gang violence, had moved to San Francisco from the small town of Ilopango, El Salvador.
Franco remembers walking into her biology class and staring blankly at her teacher, who was speaking in a language she didn’t understand.
“I didn’t know what the teacher was saying, I was very confused. I felt embarrassed because I wanted to write in English, but I didn’t know anything,” she said.
But things quickly began to make sense for Franco, who is now a senior at John O’Connell High School. In just six months, she learned English. Now she is applying to college, with the hope of one day becoming a pediatrician and returning to El Salvador to practice medicine. That dream can now become reality, thanks to the recent passage of the California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to apply for state financial aid. Without the legislation, Franco said, she is not sure she could have afforded a postsecondary education.
“Even though I’m an immigrant, now I have the possibility to get money from California,” she said. “I feel happy that I can attend college. I’m optimistic. I’m not going to give up my dreams.”
The contested California Dream Act, signed into law in 2011 by Gov. Jerry Brown, allows undocumented students who were brought to the United States before age 16 and who meet GPA and in-state requirements to apply for student financial aid benefits.
The legislation was divided into two bills: one grants undocumented students access to private financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants, while the more controversial provision, AB 131, permits undocumented students who are eligible for in-state tuition to apply for state financial aid, including Cal Grants.
AB 131 took effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Throughout San Francisco, district officials, nonprofit groups and teachers are now scrambling to make sure that as many students as possible apply for financial aid.
On Tuesday morning, teachers, administrators, staff from educational nonprofits and politicians took turns at the lectern during a press conference at John O’Connell High School to emphasize the importance of applying for financial aid. The event was part of Financial Aid Awareness week for San Francisco students, during which John O’Connell and San Francisco International high schools hosted evening forums designed to help seniors and their parents apply for federal financial aid.
This is a personal subject for District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who told the crowd at Tuesday’s press conference that his family arrived in the United States as undocumented immigrants. They could not afford to send him to Stanford, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and Harvard Law School, where he earned a doctorate in law.
“There’s no way that someone from my financial background could afford to go to college,” he said. “Financial aid makes that possible.”
“It’s something we don’t talk about enough.”
Huy Do, a 17-year-old John O’Connell senior, has applied to 13 colleges and universities, including Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. Yet between Do’s many extracurricular activities, he and his parents have yet to sit down and discuss how to pay for college. Neither of his parents attended college, so he doesn’t receive much direction from them, but he does his best to identify scholarships and grants.
“My parents can’t afford to send me to college,” he said. “I can’t afford to send myself to college. I will try to make it work somehow.”
Paying for college is a concern for graduating high school students, Huy said, but many fail to initiate the conversation with their parents.
“It’s not that we’re ignorant; we just don’t want to worry about it,” said O’Connell senior Kali Mobley, who applied to nine colleges and universities.
Mobley is one of six children and the first of her siblings to apply for college. She doesn’t ask her parents for financial assistance. Mobley said she doesn’t want to burden her family.
“My parents don’t really talk to me about it,” she said. “I don’t really know why.”
Principal Mark Alvarado can’t say for sure how many undocumented students attend John O’Connell. The school doesn’t ask students or parents to disclose that information. Anecdotally, however, Alvarado knows of at least 11 undocumented students, because all of them have approached him to talk about the very thing that administrators, teachers and politicians are trying to spread the word about: the Dream Act.
Serious concerns remain among the undocumented population about identifying themselves as living in the country illegally.
“There’s still a fear and anxiety that’s real that you have to appreciate,” Alvarado said.
Aime Tat, a site coordinator at O’Connell for the Mission-based nonprofit Seven Tepees, has dealt with the concerns of undocumented students firsthand.
Tat works one-on-one with all of O’Connell’s seniors to determine practical and individualized pathways for students after they graduate. This includes job placement, certificate programs and vocational educational schools for seniors who are not college-bound.
During her time at O’Connell, Tat has spoken with many students who expressed doubts about the feasibility of paying for and attending college.
“The first time I ever sat down with a student,” Tat said, “he told me, ‘I would love to go to college, but I can’t.’ It was the first interaction I’ve ever had one-on-one with an undocumented student.”
Though she helped the student find scholarship opportunities and funding, it wasn’t enough to cover the full cost of tuition, she said.
On Wednesday night, Tat joined a score of teachers, administrators and representatives from educational nonprofits to help students and parents understand how to apply for federal education assistance. Last year, a record 250 people attended the session. This year, 175 students and parents RSVP’d for the event, though volunteers said they believed at least 200 were in attendance.
“College Night” offered three hours of informational workshops for students and parents. The College 101 workshop for ninth- and 10th-graders taught students the basics of college and the application process, while the 201 workshop for 11th-graders delved into the specifics of applying. In the 301 workshop for 12th-graders, volunteers led students through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid process.
A session for parents, led by volunteers and parents of current college students, helped demystify the complexities of the financial aid application process. Speakers discussed FAFSA, Cal Grants and scholarship opportunities for students, and offered practical advice to parents about college preparation. Workshops were conducted in Spanish and English.
A panel led by O’Connell graduates currently in college gave high school students the opportunity to ask personal questions about student life, study habits, sports teams and work opportunities on campus, among other topics.
Jocelyn Alonso, a panel leader and sophomore at City College, said she wishes she had had this type of peer-to-peer communication while she was a student at O’Connell.
“I didn’t apply to a lot of scholarships, but if people my age had told me about them, maybe I would have,” she said. “I like giving them information. It’s nice to tell them things that could help them out in life … to educate them.”
This increased awareness, along with evolving policy, is helping to create an attitude shift among undocumented students and parents.
“There’s hope. There’s always been hope, but now it’s more concrete,” Tat said. “There are resources out there that they can access, and it’s becoming a reality for them that they can go to college and get a degree.”