Jul 28, 2014

DISPATCH: Helping 'Dreamers' Succeed

A new partnership in Watsonville bridges the gap for Dream Act students trying to win financial support for college.

DISPATCH: Helping 'Dreamers' Succeed

It's a sleepy Friday morning in Watsonville and a handful of students seated quietly in the back of a classroom are listening intently to Yolanda Santiago Vengas, a San Francisco State University professor, talk about how she will help them become better scholarship applicants.

But as Santiago Vengas breaks down the steps to applying for scholarships, it becomes evident that this is not a normal college advising program.

She tells the young men and women they will learn now to tell their immigrant student story "in a really powerful way. What does it mean to be an undocumented student in college?"

The students in the room are predominately  Dream Act scholars. They are children who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 without the proper immigration documentation. Because they have attended school regularly and meet other in-state tuition and GPA requirements, they can apply for financial aid.

"I need money for school," Maria, one of the Cabrillo students in the classroom, said bluntly.

But it's not that simple.

  • They are not United States citizens, a huge hurdle in applying for scholarships because they don't have Social Security numbers.
  • Their legal status complicates the personal narratives that many scholarship applications request—some organizations, be it colleges and universities or private scholarships, don't want to know the students aren't residents. But for the students, the hardships they've overcome to pursue their education or their motivation to succeed is directly related to those immigration-related challenges.
  • Moreover, because English is their second language, their writing skills may not be as strong as other students their age, or the exercise just takes them longer than U.S.-born students who are competing for the same financial aid dollars.

So when , the longtime educator worked with college staff to find a way to help these students. They came up with a weekly tutoring class that will teach students how to spice up their application essays, polish their resumes, get sparkling letters of recommendation and seek out scholarships that either don't ask questions about their immigration status or want to help them because of their situations.

Although the tutoring program targets Dream Act students, it is open to any Cabrillo student, or would-be student, who needs help applying for financial aid.

 in January, using the forum to search for tutors. Two heeded her call to service.

"It's really going to be a community-based program," Garcia said. She calls the students "dreamers."

And that's how everyone ended up in that classroom on a sunny morning last month: eight students, four tutors and two women from the California Strawberry Commission, who were there to share tips on how students could get scholarship dollars from their organization.

"Talk about what motivates you," Carolyn O'Donnell of the Strawberry Commission said. "What do you plan to do? What are your hopes?"

Maria, a Pajaro Valley High graduate in her first year at Cabrillo, is studying environmental science but needs assistance with her writing and English.

"I need help," she said. Patch is only using her first name because of her immigration status.

Garcia is personally tutoring five students. Jose Cabrales—a first-generation college student who grew up in Watsonville and went on to earn a bachelors degree, a masters and a doctorate—found out about the program through Garcia's blog and volunteered to help two students.

"I think this is a great opportunity to give back to the students, particularly the first-generation students," Cabrales said. "I think that's really important."

The hour-long Friday classes will focus on each element of the application process. Outside of class, students meet with their tutors to go over their work one-on-one. Santiago Vengas teaches a similar class at San Francisco State, where the immigrant students hail from Central and South America, Southeast Asia, India and more. It's been successful there, she tells the Cabrillo students.

"Not only are you going to win scholarships," she said, "it's going to help you get better grades and be a better student."

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