Valley groups issue new college guide for DREAMers

McALLEN — The final years of high school are full of college applications, anticipation and excitement for most students. But for those without a legal status in the United States, uncertainty might cloud the road toward higher education.

“These are very complex processes to follow, even if you are legally in the (U.S.),” said Esther Rodriguez, project manager at RGV FOCUS. “So it becomes even more complicated and complex for our DREAMers.”

In order to help undocumented students and their families better prepare for college, the RGV FOCUS group, a collective impact initiative focused on education in the Rio Grande Valley, released a new document full of guidelines last week.

The document, titled “Resource Guide for College Access; Advising DREAMers in the Rio Grande Valley,” was written as a tool to help educators and counselors around the Valley know how to best answer questions about local and out-of-state applications.

The new tool includes timelines, sample forms, and information about state financial aid opportunities. It also addresses common misconceptions about the types of help available and updates on the DREAM Act and the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals.

“We have found that a lot of students, a lot of DREAMers, were unaware that they qualify for in-state tuition and that they also qualify for state financial aid to finance their education,” Rodriguez said.

Every year the local nonprofit LUPE — La Union del Pueblo Entero — which works closely with RGV FOCUS, receives many questions about college admissions and the process that an undocumented student must follow.

But Tania Chavez, special projects coordinator at LUPE, said while the nonprofit helps hundreds of members with questions about immigration, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents and DACA, they don’t have the resources and knowledge to help everyone with college admissions.

For this reason, the two organizations came out with a version of this document in 2015, but it wasn’t as in-depth, Chavez said. This time, they are working with local school districts to teach them how to use the tool, which Chavez warns is not ready to be used by parents or the students alone.

“People were still coming to LUPE as the expertise to provide college info because we helped put out the toolkit, so we must know what we are talking about,” she said. “And we do know what we are talking about, except LUPE doesn’t have the capacity to help every single individual.”

To unveil the new toolkit, the group hosted an initial training a few weeks ago when about 75 high school counselors and school officials got a run through of what the document offers and even got to hear from students who already went through this process.

“This training was really important because it brought together about 75 educators from K-12 and higher education,” Chavez said. “They are now aware of, one, what policies exist at the state level that allow undocumented students to go to college; two, what applications are needed; and three, how those applications must be filled out.”

The two organizations began working together to facilitate the college application process about a year ago, Chavez said, when they began reaching out to higher education institutions in the Valley to standardize the application process.

While students in Texas have been allowed to pay in-state tuition since 2001, information about in-state financial aid, which is available for undocumented students, is scarce and each university or college has the ability to select their own application process, Chavez said.

All higher education institutions in the Valley, including the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, South Texas College and Texas Southmost College, agreed to stick to one application process for state financial aid and the new document walks counselors through it.

“We know that approximately 80 percent of high school graduates are staying in local institutions,” Chavez said. “By standardizing the process here locally, we are making a huge impact.”

While other universities in Texas might still have different application processes, having one standard way of doing things benefits both students and school officials, said Mike Carranza, associate dean for student financial services, testing and veterans affairs at South Texas College.

“Everybody had to work together to streamline the process to where it made sense for everybody,” Carranza said. “To make sure that students, when they come to register and when they come to do their financial aid, they wouldn’t have so much in their mind. We wanted to make sure this wasn’t an additional burden for them.”

The document also includes application information for state universities outside the Valley and grant opportunities for DREAMers.

The plan for now is to continue reaching out to educators and counselors for them to become familiarized with the document, said Chavez. It’s geared for educators at all levels, not just high school.

“A lot of the times by the time the students get so senior year they think they can’t go (to college), which is a lie, and they start doing really bad in school,” she said. “By the time they realize they are actually able to go, they already messed up all of their grades.”

The appropriate next step, she said, would be to develop a similar document that can be used by parents and the students themselves. This would help spread out the message that while the process can be difficult it is not impossible, she said.

“I think it’s important for both educators and students to know, and also family members, that the process for undocumented students to reach higher education and state financial aid is complicated, but it’s doable,” she said.