Undocumented Scholars Learn How To Pay to Study

Angel Ku talked about the pinnacle of his academic achievements: getting a highly competitive research fellowship at Stanford University for future medical students.

“It was surreal,” said the 19-year-old. “I was so nervous before my interview.”

That was almost two years ago, when Ku was a high school senior and thought he wanted to become a medical doctor. While the five-week research fellowship allowed him to work in the lab at one of the country’s top universities, it also opened his eyes to the world of medical research.

“I saw the need for diversity in research,” said Ku, who was born in Yucatan, Mexico, and is of Mayan ancestry. “I want to be working with my community. I want to work with them on research that is sustainable.”

Now a sophomore at San Francisco State University, Ku is studying biology and is thinking about how he will fund his Ph.D. program in genetics or molecular cell biology. The undocumented student worries that with the rising cost of tuition his dreams may be out of reach.

On Saturday, during the first-ever AB 540 conference at San Francisco State University, counselors, education leaders, community organizations and students spoke about the challenges undocumented students face and how they can connect with resources, including scholarship-granting organizations, to help them succeed in school. The conference was also to inform counselors and parents how to help students achieve their academic objectives.

About 170 people attended the event, said Rose Carmona, a financial aid counselor at the university and one of the event coordinators. Workshop topics included transferring from a community college to a four-year university and how to pay for college.

“I work really hard academically so I can change my life. But sometimes I don’t know,” Ku said, shaking his head. “It’s really hard. Society is really hard.”

For many undocumented students, paying for higher education at a four-year university can be difficult, even when they qualify for in-state tuition through a 2001 law known as AB 540.

Students attending San Francisco State, for instance, pay $2,370 each semester. While that’s drastically reduced, compared to out-of-state tuition of more than $4,000, students don’t qualify for federal or state aid. They must also pay tuition before classes begin, unless they arrange a payment plan.

“There’s tuition and books,” said Mario Flores, director of Project Connect at San Francisco State University. “That’s one of the overall challenges.” Some courses, including sciences, require additional fees for labs or equipment.

Claudia León, program coordinator for Chicana Latina Foundation, said scholarships, particularly those that don’t require a social security number, are the only option for students. This year her organization received 200 applications for 30 scholarships, she said.

“Scholarships are like playing the lottery. The more you play the more chances you have of getting it,” Flores told students and parents during a workshop.

Carmona said San Francisco State has between 150 and 200 students classified as AB 540. At San Francisco City College, there’s an estimated 100, said Leticia Silva, counselor at the college’s Latino Service Network.

But reaching those students can be difficult.

The admissions office typically doesn’t distribute the names of AB 540 students because of confidentiality issues, so if students don’t seek out the help of counselors, they can get lost in the system.

“We don’t know who they are,” Carmona said. “Maybe they don’t want to be self-identified because they don’t want to stand out.”

Flores said many AB 540 students in the Asian community are hesitant to step forward, particularly because the immigration debate in the country has been peppered with hateful comments.

“Students panic,” Flores said. “They don’t want to be associated with that label.”

Since 2001, 10 states, including California, have passed laws allowing undocumented students who have spent three years in a U.S. high school to pay in-state tuition at universities where they reside.

And that has enabled thousands to attend community colleges and four-year universities. It is estimated that in California between 3,500 and 5,000 undocumented students attend public colleges and universities under the AB 540 law. But as California colleges and universities raise tuition costs to deal with state budget cuts in the California State University, University of California and community college system, more students fear higher education could slip from their futures.

The California Supreme Court is now considering a case against AB 540 that was filed by students paying out-of-state tuition, and a decision is expected soon.

“We all have side jobs to pay for school,” said Hermes Barrera, 27, who refuses to be discouraged by tuition hikes. Barrera, born in Mexico, completed his first two years at City College before transferring to San Francisco State in 2004.

He took a four-year break from school because he got a job as a restaurant manager earning $18 an hour. But this summer he decided to return to school full time to complete his undergraduate degree in economics.

“When I’m done, I’m going to apply for graduate school,” Barrera said. “Eventually, I want to provide financial services to the community.”

S.Y. Brunswick, program director of the Maisin Scholar Award, said the first step students should make is to get in touch with organizations like hers that offer funding for AB 540 students.

“We’re always looking for students with a real desire to succeed.”

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