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DREAMzone Creates a Support Network for Undocumented Students at ASU and Other Universities

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Discovering a huge lack of understanding about the needs of undocumented college students, two Arizona State University students formed a program three years ago to educate campus leaders, staff, and faculty about such challenges and about ways to help.

Jesus Cisneros and Davier Rodriguez formed DREAMzone in 2012 with the goal of providing the knowledge and tools needed to meet the social, cultural, and academic needs of undocumented students at ASU. Cisneros now is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, and Rodriguez is a program coordinator for ASU’s TRIO Student Support Services.

“We recognized there was an absence of conversation around how to support students who are undocumented,” Cisneros said. “There was also a lack of information as to whether undocumented students could even be enrolled in the university or whether they could qualify for scholarships and financial aid.”

DREAMzone provides student leaders, staff, and faculty from ASU and other educational institutions — including high schools — with four-hour workshops that begin by challenging misconceptions people have about undocumented students.

One common misconception is that undocumented students cannot legally pursue a higher education. In Arizona, undocumented students can attend any of the state's public colleges or universities, but they must pay out-of-state tuition and aren't eligible for state or federal financial aid.

At the workshop, participants also learn about the hurdles that make it difficult for undocumented students to attain higher education. National figures show that only 5 percent to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates go on to college, and far fewer successfully graduate with a degree.

One particularly hurdle the undocumented face is a high level of anxiety caused by the possible detention or deportation of family members. The workshop teaches participants about the importance of establishing safe spaces where undocumented students can share their concerns and build a school-based support system.

Another obstacle the undocumented face is paying for college. Though many of them demonstrate financial need, they're not eligible for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the form families fill out to apply for federal grants, loans, and work study. But at the workshop, participants learn about a number of private scholarships that are available for undocumented students. They also learn about the federal, state, and institutional policies directly affecting undocumented students. 

In addition, the workshops provide participants the opportunity to engage in dialogue with a panel of current and former undocumented college students and learn about their experiences. At the end of the workshop, participants receive a certificate that proves they can effectively respond to the needs of undocumented students.

Since their first workshop in October 2012, Cisneros and Rodriguez have held about 50 more and have certified approximately 2,000 participants. Their efforts were recognized in April 2013 when they won a competition put together by the Clinton Global Initiative University that asked college students to propose solutions to address a pressing challenge.

DREAMzone was among hundreds of projects submitted for consideration. Students from across the country were asked to vote for their favorite project. DREAMzone received more than 507,000 votes and was declared the winner.

At an event held at Washington University in St. Louis, Rodriguez was called on stage and received an award on behalf of DREAMzone by former President Clinton and TV host Stephen Colbert.

Cisneros said the award meant that other people from across the country are “recognizing that there’s a need to develop these competencies for working with undocumented students.”

“Inevitably [undocumented students] are part of our student population," he said. “And so it becomes a disservice when we’re taking their tuition money, but we’re not providing services or structures that . . . support their college trajectories.”

The number of undocumented students attending Arizona's three state universities has dropped sharply since voters in 2006 approved Proposition 300, a state law requiring the undocumented to pay out-of-state tuition and denying them access to state and federal financial aid.

There were only seven undocumented students attending Arizona’s three state universities during the spring 2015 semester, down from 1,470 in spring 2007, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

But more undocumented students could begin attending state universities as a result of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows undocumented youth to stay and work in the United States. In May, the Arizona Board of Regents said DACA recipients could begin paying in-state tuition at all three state universities.

At ASU, for example, in-state tuition is about $10,500 this year while the out-of-state tuition is about $25,500.

Cisneros said he sees this as a positive step but pointed out that undocumented students still are ineligible for state and federal financial aid because of Proposition 300. So paying for college remains a challenge for them.

Moving forward, he said, DREAMzone will continue arming participants with knowledge and tools needed to help undocumented students break down these and other “systematic barriers.”

“It’s our educational responsibility as practitioners and as educators to support the academic, personal, social, and intellectual development of all students regardless of their immigration status,” he said.

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