By Ann Pauley
As a senior in high school in Monroe, Georgia, in 2005, as her friends were getting acceptance letters and planning to go off to college, Sadhana Singh knew that “college was just not in the cards for me. I was raring to go, but I had to set my dream aside.”
Academic preparation was not the issue. Singh finished 11th in her high school graduating class. For Singh, the barriers were access and financial resources.
Singh moved to the United States from Guyana, in South America, in 1999. She was 13. “My parents had tourist visas which ran out. They weren’t educated enough to navigate the proper channels,” said Singh.
Students like Singh are often called Dreamers after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act that has been proposed several times since 2001 but has yet to pass in Congress. Dreamers come to the United States as children, are educated in American schools and are eager to attend college and be part of the U.S. economy.
Dreamers embrace the name with pride, just as they embrace their new country. But because of their status as undocumented immigrants, their college options and the financial resources to enroll are significantly limited.
As a Dreamer, Singh was ineligible for federal financial aid, including federal loans and Pell grants. She also lived in a state with especially restrictive policies: Singh was prohibited from attending five of the state’s most competitive public universities, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. At other Georgia state institutions, she was not eligible for in-state tuition.
After Singh graduated from high school, she worked as a lab technician at an archaeological firm – for nine years. The work was interesting, but, “I felt like I was trapped,” she said. “I yearned to go to college, but we couldn’t afford it. I was hoping something would change.”
That change came like a thunderbolt. Last year, “One of my co-workers heard about a new scholarship program for people like me,” Singh said. “He knew I still had a dream to go college and encouraged me to apply.”
Singh immediately applied and was awarded a scholarship from TheDream.US. Singh said she chose Trinity because “it is an excellent school, all women, Catholic, and because I always wanted to go to college in the city. Trinity was the school that stood out for me.”
“My whole life changed when I came to Trinity,” said Singh.
That transformative experience was exactly what the founders of TheDream.US envisioned when they created the organization. The catalyst for the scholarship program came when President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012. DACA allowed undocumented immigrants who had come to the United States when they were children to obtain a Social Security number, a driver’s license and temporary work permit, renewable after two years.
Yet students with DACA status are unable to receive federal aid to continue their education and in most states they are not eligible for in-state tuition, making college prohibitively expensive.
One of the founders of TheDream.US is Don Graham, CEO of Graham Holdings Company and former publisher of The Washington Post. Through many years of working closely with nonprofit organizations in the Washington region focused on expanding access to higher education, he learned about the challenges facing Dreamers in the D.C. metro area – and around the country.
“I’m not wise enough to know what is the right immigration policy for the United States of America, but I know these students deserve a chance at higher education,” Graham said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It seemed terribly unfair that literally everyone else in the [high school] class could get access to federal loans and, if low-income, could get Pell grants, and the Dreamers couldn’t get a cent.”
Graham started talking about supporting Dreamers with former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, who served under President George W. Bush, and Henry Muñoz III, who runs a major architecture and design firm. Muñoz introduced him to a young activist, Gaby Pacheco, a native of Ecuador who led a 1,500-mile march from Miami to D.C. to promote the DREAM Act.
The founders brought philanthropists together to create a college scholarship program for students who obtain DACA status. They also talked to educators, including President Pat McGuire, seeking both guidance and a commitment to the program. TheDream.US was officially launched in February 2014.
Trinity was among the initial group of institutions to partner with TheDream.US and, at first, was the only private, nonprofit university in the nation to join the program. TheDream.US requires its scholarship recipients to attend one of its partner institutions, to ensure that there is a commitment from the college or university to provide the structure and support to the students and to make sure there is a critical mass of Dreamers on a campus – two key factors for academic success and persistence to graduation.
Trinity welcomed two Dreamer Scholars in spring 2014 and a cohort of more than 20 Dreamer Scholars in fall 2014. Trinity is the only partner university in D.C., and, this fall, will have the second largest number of Dreamer Scholars among all of the 60 partners. All Dreamer Scholars have received DACA documentation.
Andrea Pinillos had a similar experience as Singh. “I did well in high school and my friends kept asking me, ‘Why aren’t you going to college?’ It was so hard to see my friends moving on, going off to college. And it was hard to keep a secret,” said Pinillos.
Her secret was that she was a Dreamer. She was born in Lima, Peru, and moved to the United States when she was 11 years old with her family, settling in Manassas, Virginia.
After high school, Pinillos enrolled in classes at Northern Virginia Community College where she had to pay out-of-state tuition, which was a financial hardship. She worked at a pizzeria for several years, but “my life wasn’t going anywhere.”
That all changed when she was 23 years old. “I was watching Univision television and I saw Gaby Pacheco talking about a new scholarship program that her organization, TheDream.US, was offering to Dreamers like me,” Pinillos recalled.
Pinillos applied to the program and was overjoyed when she received news of her scholarship and her acceptance to Trinity.
“Sometimes I can’t believe how fortunate I am,” said Pinillos. “When I wake up in the morning, it is a blessing that I am going to this great university in the capital city of the United States. I appreciate every single moment at Trinity. I love being here.”
Pinillos plans to major in communication with a minor in political science, and “my big dream is to be a journalist for a Spanish language television station.” She is also interested in missionary work.
Pinillos is proud to be a Dreamer Scholar. “They trust us to be part of changing the world and, in the United States, to be part of a nation of equity and contribute to our communities.”
Singh, 29, also plans to major in communication and this summer, interned at TheDream.US, working on its website, social media and profiles of Dreamer Scholars. She aspires to be a journalist and wants to shine a light on human suffering in conflict zones around the world.
“I had to keep my secret for so long, and now I have this incredible opportunity,” said Singh. “My life has changed. I don’t take this for granted – I am so grateful and so blessed. I have been given so much, and I want to give back – to Trinity, to my community.”
Yarely Rodriguez was the salutatorian of her high school class in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was vice president of her school’s National Honor Society, an active member of HOSA: Health Occupation Students of America, and vice president of the writing club.
She came to the United States from Mexico when she was in third grade. In her senior year she applied to many colleges, but she was not eligible for federal aid and would have been charged out-of-state tuition, which she and her family would find challenging to afford.
“I hoped with all my heart that I would get the scholarship,” said Rodriguez. “If I did not have this Dreamer scholarship, I probably would be working full time and going to community college. I am so grateful for this opportunity.”
She chose Trinity because “I like the girl power,” she said. She plans to major in biochemistry and go to medical school. She’d like to be a cardiologist, because she has seen the effect of heart problems on her family.
Going to college in D.C. is a “big change from living in Utah,” said Rodriguez. “I love going to college in D.C. I love the history here and the monuments are inspiring,” she said. “I also love Trinity. The campus is so beautiful, the students are really nice, and my professors believe in me.”
Rodriguez, Singh and Pinillos will be sophomores this fall and they are excited about welcoming a new cohort of Dreamer Scholars to Trinity.
“We are very proud to be the first Dreamer Scholars at Trinity,” said Singh. “We feel a special responsibility to do well and are honored to welcome new Dreamer Scholars to the Trinity sisterhood.”