Today was a great day for Trinity and Trinity students now and in the future. We were part of a press conference announcing the creation of a new scholarship program for undocumented students, also known as Dreamers. This program became possible because of the great leadership of Donald Graham, the former owner of the Washington Post and a major philanthropist who is also a great friend to Trinity. Trinity students may not know Mr. Graham personally, but several thousand have reaped the benefits of his leadership in creating the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program and D.C. College Access Program, and before those programs he led the Eastern High 500 Club.
Today Mr. Graham announced the $25 million Dreamers Scholarship Fund (TheDream.US) organized with the help of Democratic activist Henry Munoz III and former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $10 million, and other individuals and organizations contributed the balance.
Trinity is one of 13 colleges and universities who are the first partners in this program. We were honored to be the only private non-profit college on the list since we are well known for our commitment to social justice.
Dreamers Scholarships are a step forward in addressing a terrible injustice in our society. Dreamers are students who came to the United States as very young children with parents who entered without documentation. The cruel and disparaging phrase “illegals” is used as a cudgel that denies the fundamental humanity and dignity of these individuals who were not so fortunate as others to immigrate to the U.S. “the right way.” One of the symptoms of the deep prejudice that runs through our society is the refusal of members of Congress and many state legislators to permit student financial aid — Pell Grants, student loans — for these students.
As the grandchild of immigrants who I never met on either side of the family, I often ponder “legal” versus “illegal” status. Grandfather McGuire from Ireland was apparently a somewhat sketchy character, and I often wonder if he bothered with papers at all. Who knows, and what does it matter, his grandchildren are doing their part to be contributing members of this society — as today’s Dreamers will do in the future. What matters is how we live our lives, not what stamps of approval or pedigrees or status symbols we carry around.
The refusal of the wealthiest country in history to extend equal college support for undocumented college students is a grave injustice. Fortunately, private philanthropists like Mr. Graham and the other creators of TheDream.US have stepped up to begin to address a part of this injustice for some students. This new fund will aid several thousand Dreamers; but hundreds of thousands will remain unaided unless legislators have a change of heart. Fortunately, the coalition that has created the new scholarships is bipartisan, and that offers a glimmer of hope for some change in public policy in the future.
This Dreamers initiatives is also consistent with Catholic teachings on social justice and the dignity of human life. Flowing from those teachings, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have been passionate voices for justice in immigration reform, and they have urged Catholic colleges and universities to make special efforts to welcome and support Dreamers.
Here are remarks I gave at the Dreamers Scholarship press conference today:
There’s no greater gift than the gift of a college education to lift the spirit, spark imagination and ensure prosperity. For Dreamers, however, these huge benefits too often remain a mere fantasy, a grave injustice because of short-sighted public policies on student financial aid.
I knew Dreamers long before I knew that word. Over the last two decades as Trinity’s president, I can recall the young women who would visit my office bearing passionate letters of their ambition, sobbing through tales of treacherous border crossings, of hopes that soared through triumphant high school achievements only to crash against the barriers they faced to paying for college.
They wanted these degrees not for their own glory, but so that they could provide for their families, so that they could maybe get their mothers to stop working so hard, so that their children could live more secure lives.
It broke my heart when I realized we could not meet all of the need of these talented, ambitious students. Some even begged me to let them wash dishes or work in housekeeping or other jobs to barter their tuition.
We managed to help a very few, not with bartering but with grants, but for most, we simply could not close the gap because we already fund so much need among our D.C. students. Trinity’s median family income is just about $25,000; we provide millions in Trinity grants, which are mostly unfunded tuition discounts, but most of our students also need Pell grants and federal loans. Up til now, for Dreamers, we have not been able to close the gap.
Now, thanks to Don and Henry and Carlos, the Gates Foundation and the great supporters here today, in January we were able to enroll our first Dreamer, Lourdes, a graduate of Bell Multicultural High School, active in the Junior ROTC, successful in her AP courses, a young woman from Guatemala who now proudly wears Trinity’s purple and gold. She is the first of a long line of Dreamers who will become extraordinary Trinity graduates, young women like Hillary and Sulamon who are here today from Cesar Chavez High School. We are pleased and proud to work with great partners like Deputy Mayor B.B. Otero who founded Centro Nia, one of our great partner organizations; and Lori Kaplan of the Latin American Youth Center; Argelia Rodriguez of the D.C. College Access Program; Maria Tukeva of Columbia Heights Education Campus; Maria Gomez of Mary’s Center; the Cristo Rey Network, and so many others.
So many thanks to Don Graham and all of the funders who are making TheDream a reality!