It started with two students, seniors at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, Calif., who had the American dream like so many others to get a college education. Only these students were undocumented immigrants – they were brought by their parents to the U.S. as children, but never granted legal citizenship. And while they have been guaranteed access to K-12 education through the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyer v. Doe, without a social security number, they could only apply for college as non-U.S. citizens. That meant paying hefty tuition fees since they were ineligible for state or federal financial aid. Their dreams were dangerously close to becoming faded memories.
Then they heard the story of Karina Chavarria, a Communities In Schools of Los Angeles graduation coach at Hamilton, who herself had been undocumented but had gone on to obtain both her undergraduate and master’s degrees. And suddenly, the vision of becoming a college student came into sharper focus.
“I tell them my story – who I am, what I’ve been through and how I got here,” said Chavarria, who was 25 before she was granted citizenship. She knows the psychological toll that comes with being silent about being undocumented, and of waiting and wanting, because she has lived through it.
“They don’t say anything while they’re listening but you can see that they understand I know exactly what they are facing. When I stop talking they come up to me and say, ‘Can you help me get into college?’”
An estimated 65,000 undocumented young people graduate from high school each year according to a 2012 report by the Immigration Policy Center. Yet, approximately only five to ten percent of these students make the transition to college Within the Los Angeles Unified School District there are reportedly 200,000 undocumented students.
The Dream Act, federal legislation originally proposed in 2001, if passed would allow qualifying undocumented youth to be eligible for a conditional path to citizenship by meeting specific criteria and completing a college degree. Similar versions of the legislation at the state and local level now allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, and other legislation has passed that grants individuals access to state funding that can help with financial aid. These steps have helped low-income families afford to send their kids to college.
Helping students succeed in school and stay on track to graduation is something Chavarria deals with every day. In her part-time job at Hamilton, she provides approximately 70 students with targeted services while also pursuing her doctorate degree at UCLA. But Chavarria has made it her central focus to work on an issue that is very close to her heart – giving hope to undocumented youth by providing them with the information and resources they need to become college students.
“This is a passion of mine,” said Chavarria, who’s worked with high school students for more than a decade and at Hamilton since 2011. “Nothing will stop me from doing my work with the students.”
After the first two students, two more approached her. Then there were 11, and by year’s end, Chavarria had guided nearly 20 students to resources that helped them find funding to pay application fees, apply for financial aid and complete paperwork so that they could become college students.
Chavarria knew that she could be exponentially more effective and have a greater reach if she enrolled others in her mission. She found students at Hamilton who were willing to support their peers and helped them launch the High School Dreamers club at the start of the 2012 school year. The club’s goals are to make sure students feel safe enough to reveal they are undocumented and then to create a plan that will get them into college. Chavarria acts as the facilitator – she keeps the students updated on immigration legislation, helps arrange for speakers to come meet with the club and attends their weekly meetings when she is not in class herself. The students are meeting leaders in their community, learning presentation and planning skills, and gaining the confidence to stand up for themselves. Because of Chavarria, these students are helping themselves while giving back to their own communities.
“I would do this work even if I didn’t get paid,” said Chavarria. “This is an investment. To see these kids walk across the stage and achieve their academic goals…it’s so gratifying. I know that I’ve impacted the life of not only one person, but the whole community.”