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From left: Teresa Escobar, Nadia Rivas and Mariana Hernandez are undocumented students who have overcome barriers to higher education to attend Rhodes College, a private Christian school in Memphis.

From left: Teresa Escobar, Nadia Rivas and Mariana Hernandez are undocumented students who have overcome barriers to higher education to attend Rhodes College, a private Christian school in Memphis.

Caroline Bauman

Latino Memphis program aims to prepare undocumented Hispanic students for college

Mariana Hernandez, 20, had been working toward college ever since her parents moved her to Memphis from Mexico as a young girl. She recalls a “wave of depression” crashing over her when she realized all of her work might not pay off.

Hernandez is among recent high school graduates who are also undocumented immigrants in Tennessee. Even if they excel in high school, they face an uphill battle to obtain a college education — from filling out an application to paying for college, especially when in-state tuition or most scholarships don’t apply.

“It wasn’t until I was well into high school that I realized I didn’t have the documentation needed to apply to scholarships and aid,” Hernandez said. “I quit doing my work in my (advanced placement) classes. I thought, ‘Why should I graduate? Why should I do anything? Why am I here?'”

Fortunately, her questions didn’t go unanswered. Guided by advisers at Abriendo Puertas, Hernandez received help applying for scholarships that allowed her to attend Christian Brothers University. She is now a rising junior at the private Memphis college.

Abriendo Puertas, which stands for “opening doors,” is a growing program of Latino Memphis, a nonprofit advocacy group for Hispanics. Over the last three years, the group has worked with more than 400 Hispanic students in the city — many of them brought to the country illegally or born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants — to help them navigate their final years of high school and become college-ready.

In Shelby County Schools, the growing Hispanic population is almost 14,000 students, although the district is not able to provide the number of undocumented immigrants on its rolls. Undocumented families can register their children for school if they provide two proofs of residence, such as a rental agreement, water bill, Tennessee driver’s license, passport or international ID.

Last school year, Abriendo Puertas ran student groups in seven Memphis high schools and worked with 200 students, a significant increase from its first year of working with 46 students at Kingsbury High School.

Hernandez was a senior at Kingsbury when the program launched. She had found renewed motivation in school and resumed her studies in 2012 after U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced a deferred action for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. Under an immigration policy known as DACA, eligible immigrants could receive documentation to work or to apply for college.

However, Hernandez said there was no one to walk her through what to do with her newfound documentation. Like many of her peers, Hernandez is from a home where her parents don’t speak English fluently and had never navigated the U.S. college system.

Her new status also didn’t mean she would be eligible for in-state tuition or state scholarship programs — a reality that continues to be a challenge for students such as Hernandez. Last April, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted 49-47 against a bill that would have allowed in-state tuition for undocumented students. About 25,000 students could be eligible for in-state tuition with the deferred action change, according the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“Why would you try hard in high school, or even graduate, if you thought your future options were going to be so limited because out-of-state tuition and scholarships don’t apply to you?” asked Jennifer Alejo, the director of Abriendo Puertas. “You see these kids just deflate when they think their lifelong dream of going to college to become a lawyer or teacher is never going to happen. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Alejo worked with Hernandez and dozens of other undocumented students to help them graduate from high school, figure out how to use DACA, and apply to college. Many have stayed in Memphis, with most going to Christian Brothers University, which offers privately funded scholarships and loans to students like Hernandez through its Latino Student Success program.

Christian Brothers, commonly referred to as CBU, was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month for the university’s collaboration with Latino Memphis, which supports the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

The demand for similar partnerships are sure to grow. In Tennessee, the Hispanic population has increased by 134 percent over the last decade, making it the third fastest growing Latino population in the nation. More than 66,268 Hispanic students are enrolled in the state’s K-12 schools.

But educational opportunities have lagged. Only 9,251 Tennessee high school graduates who are Hispanic are enrolled in undergraduate colleges, ranking 31st in the nation, according to a study by Excelencia in Education, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that researches Hispanics in education.

For more Hispanic students to graduate high school and go to college, more groups like Latino Memphis are needed, as well as a greater awareness of them, said Gaby Pacheco, a political director for United We Dream, a national scholarship fund for immigrant youth.

“For students who are undocumented, there is so much fear and misinformation surrounding what life after high school could look like.”
Gaby Pacheco, United We Dream

“For students who are undocumented, there is so much fear and misinformation surrounding what life after high school could look like,” Pacheco said. “Thankfully, more and more people are coming to realize the injustice of the barriers that exist for these students and how important it is for young, motivated people who have the talent to graduate and go to college.”

Teresa Escobar, 19, is a testament to that belief. Born in El Salvador, she graduated from Bartlett High School after attending several high schools and landing in the Memphis suburb. She too went through Abriendo Puertas and is following in Hernandez’ footsteps this fall to CBU. But when asked how many of her Hispanic friends have joined her in college, she paused.

“I can’t really think of anyone like who can make college happen on their own, outside of this program,” Escobar said. “My mom used to tell me that if I worked hard and never made a C, I could go to college. I broke down the day I realized that wouldn’t be the case.”

Escobar has high-profile aspirations. She wants to be a businesswoman or a family physician one day. But she says undocumented students in Tennessee feel like they’re invisible when it comes to the pipeline to college.

“I had no idea what I was doing, none of us do,” Escobar said. “But there’s opportunities out there to further your education, if only you know where to look and what to do. By going to college, I’m doing something that’s going to be huge for myself and my family. Doesn’t everyone deserve a shot to at least try to have that?”

Programa de Latino Memphis prepara a estudiantes indocumentados para la universidad

foto: Desde la izquierda: Teresa Escobar, Nadia Rivas y Mariana Hernández son estudiantes indocumentadas que han superado barreras para acceder a la educación superior e inscribirse en Christian Brothers University, una universidad privada cristiana en Memphis.

Mariana Hernández, de 20 años, ha estado trabajando duro para ir a la universidad desde que sus padres se mudaron de México a Memphis cuando era joven. Hoy Hernández se encuentra entre los muchos graduados de secundaria que no tienen documentos en Tennessee. Incluso cuando les va bien en la escuela, tienen una batalla cuesta arriba cuando se trata de obtener un diploma universitario. Todo es difícil, desde llenar una solicitud hasta pagar la matrícula, y especialmente cuando las becas y ayudas no les benefician por su falta de papeles.

“No fue sino hasta que estaba profundamente comprometida con mi secundaria que me di cuenta de que no tenía la documentación necesaria para solicitar becas y ayudas”, dijo Hernández. “Dejé de hacer mis tareas. Pensé entonces, ‘¿Para qué graduarme? ¿Para qué hacer cualquier cosa? ¿Por qué estoy aquí?

Afortunadamente, sus preguntas encontraron respuesta. Guiada por los orientadores del programa Abriendo Puertas, Hernández recibió ayuda solicitando becas para estudiar en Christian Brothers University en Memphis, donde no le falta mucho para graduarse.

Abriendo Puertas es una iniciativa de Latino Memphis, una organización hispana sin fines de lucro que apoya a los hispanos en el Medio-Sur. En los últimos tres años la organización ha trabajado con más de 400 estudiantes hispanos en la ciudad – muchos de los cuales no poseen documentos de residencia o ciudadanía – para ayudarlos a navegar su etapa final en la secundaria y prepararlos para la universidad.

En las escuelas del Condado de Shelby, la creciente población hispana ya llega a los 14.000 estudiantes. Familias sin documentos pueden inscribir a sus niños en las escuelas si muestran al menos dos pruebas de residencia, tales como un contrato de renta, recibos de luz y agua, licencia de conducir o pasaporte.

El año pasado, Abriendo Puertas mantuvo grupos estudiantiles en siete secundarias de Memphis y trabajó con 200 estudiantes.

A pesar del plan de acción diferida del gobierno y de políticas como el DACA, estudiantes como Hernández aún encuentran difícil navegar el sistema universitario de Estados Unidos. Además, el estatus migratorio de Hernández no le garantiza una matrícula o becas del estado. En abril, la Casa de Representantes de Tennessee votó 49-47 en contra de una legislación que hubiera permitido matrículas locales para estudiantes indocumentados, lo que hubiera significado oportunidades para más de 25.000 estudiantes elegibles.

Bajo esta perspectiva, aquellos que se quedan en Memphis usualmente optan por la Christian Brothers University, la cual ofrece becas privadas y préstamos a estudiantes como Hernández a través de su programa Latino Student Success.

La demanda por iniciativas de este tipo seguramente seguirá creciendo. En Tennessee, la población hispana se ha incrementado en 134 % durante la última década, convirtiéndola en la tercera población hispana en cuanto a rapidez de crecimiento en toda la nación.

Sin embargo, las oportunidades educacionales se han quedado atrás. Apenas 9.251 graduados hispanos de las secundarias de Tennessee están inscritos en universidades., poniendo al estado como número 31 de la nación, de acuerdo a un estudio hecho por Excelencia en Educación, una organización sin fines de lucro de Washington D.C. enfocada en hispanos y educación.

Para que más estudiantes hispanos puedan graduarse de la secundaria e ir a la universidad, se necesitan más grupos como Latino Memphis y más conciencia sobre su existencia, dijo Gaby Pacheco, directora política deUnited We Dream, un fondo nacional de becas para la juventud inmigrante.

“Menos mal, más y más gente se está dando cuenta de la injusticia de las barreras que existen para estos estudiantes y de lo importante que es para los jóvenes motivados con talento el poder graduarse e ir a la universidad”, dijo Pacheco.