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New Generation Of Undocumented Students Starts College Under Wash. 'Dream Act'

Martha Kang
"It's nice knowing you're not forgotten just because of where you were born," says incoming UW freshman Carlos Escutia, who is undocumented.

Move-in day at the University of Washington is a jumble of boxes and emotions for incoming freshman Carlos Escutia.

"I'm so happy I get to move in first. I get to pick the bed," he says, grinning and carrying a bedspread into his new dorm room. 

For the past 15 years, Escutia's family has worked hard in hopes of celebrating days like this. His parents left Mexico when Escutia was 3, dreaming of better lives and better education for their children. Going to a four-year college has always been Escutia's goal.

A year ago, it wasn't even clear the Lynnwood High School grad would make it to this day. As an undocumented immigrant, Escutia didn't qualify for government loans to cover his college costs. He'd have to apply for competitive private scholarships and hope for the best.

Then the state legislature passed the "Dream Act," granting many undocumented high school graduates access to state-funded college grants. Escutia was among the first to apply, and he is now part of the state's first wave of so-called "dreamers" to start classes.

Credit Martha Kang / KPLU
Carlos Escutia unlocks his dorm room for the first time.

Even as he moves into his dorm room, Escutia is trying to reconcile his excitement for college with the sadness he feels over moving out of his parents' home.

"I know it's worth it," Escutia says, sighing deeply. "It's going to be good. I'm going to definitely do my best, try even harder now, to keep them proud, make sure that it's worth everything they did."

Undocumented And 'Forgotten'

Escutia is one of Washington state's estimated 35,000 undocumented youth and young adults who came to the U.S. as children before 2012. The Washington Dream Act, formally called "The Real Hope Act" and nicknamed for a similar federal proposal, targets these students, making many eligible for the state's financial aid program for low-income college students.

An undocumented student who earned diploma from a Washington high school and has lived in the state for three consecutive years is now eligible for thousands of dollars in state-funded grants for college. At UW and Washington State University, students who meet the income requirements can receive more than $10,000 annually.

According to Harvard sociologist and former UW professor Roberto Gonzales, "the Washington Dream Act is certainly a game-changer for many young people in the state," precisely because a lack of access to financial aid has prevented many undocumented students from ever enrolling in college.

Undocumented students are barred from receiving the most common federal student loans, grants or work study. Even many private student lenders turn down undocumented applicants unless a legal U.S. resident will co-sign their loan. Without a private scholarship or institutional aid from their college, many undocumented students attend classes part-time simply to afford their higher education, if they attend at all.

Credit Martha Kang / KPLU
Carlos Escutia unloads boxes in his dorm room. His roommate didn't arrive until the next day, so he picked the bed by the window.

Pew's Hispanic Research Project found one-quarter of undocumented 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. have some college experience, compared to nearly 60 percent of native-born young adults. Even in Washington, one of 18 states where undocumented immigrants qualify to pay cheaper in-state tuition rates, just 811 "presumed undocumented" students enrolled in public colleges under this provision in 2012.

It's possible the Washington Dream Act is already having an impact. Since the applications were released in May, more than 2,000 students have already applied for state need grants. Though higher education officials say it's tricky to compare this figure with the 2012 numbers, they do suspect the new law is offering many undocumented students a shot at a college education they previously couldn't afford. 

"It's like that little light at the end of the tunnel," Escutia says. "I think it's just the beginning for people who are here illegally. It's kind of nice knowing you're not being forgotten just because of where you were born."

'Retooling' For A Different Life

For Escutia, the full reality of his immigration status didn't hit him until a year ago.

Credit Martha Kang / KPLU
Carlos Escutia meets the resident advisor on his floor.

He'd been counting on the state-funded College Bound Scholarship for college. Low-income middle schoolers can apply for the incentive program which guarantees a tuition-free education at a public collegeif the student maintains good grades and good behavior through high school.

Escutia filled out the paperwork in the seventh grade and left blank the portion dealing with proof of citizenship. It wasn't until the end of his junior year that a counselor delivered the bad news to Escutia: he wasn't eligible due to his legal status. Then came another blow in Escutia's senior year when he finally confirmed he couldn't even apply for federal aid.

It's a common experience for undocumented youth. Many, if not most, first come to understand the full gravity of their immigration status while applying for college. Research shows the shock of this discovery can discourage even high-achieving students from pursuing higher education.

"The jolt of this realization really profoundly pushes undocumented people into a present world where they really have to rethink their goals," says Gonzales, who has worked with undocumented youth for two decades. "They have to curb their expectations and retool for a life that's really different."

But Escutia's jolt didn't curb his expectations at all. He didn't retool; he doubled down.

"That's when I decided to get busy," he says.

Daunting Costs And Financial Struggles

Credit Martha Kang / KPLU
Araceli Rosas, Carlos Escutia's mother, came to this country when her son was 3 years old. "It was a difficult road for us, because we've suffered through a lot," she says.

Escutia's mother Araceli Rosas says her family has suffered through a lot. Rosas left behind many relatives when she left her home in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City.

The immigrant life wasn't always easy, she says, but her goals never wavered. 

"Our plan and our encouragement for our children was always to continue to study, to keep on doing what we couldn't do in our country, mostly due to lack of resources and money," she says, speaking through a Spanish translator. "It was hard for them to try and study when we knew we wouldn't be able to help them afford the university."

Escutia says his parents were supportive of his desire to go to college, but he remembers his parents pushed him to be more realistic. The cost of attending the University of Washington tops $27,000 annually, and they wouldn't be able to help him cover much of the costs. How would he pay for it?

"'Start considering doing what you're sister's doing,'" Escutia remembers them saying, exemplifying his older sister, who had slowly worked her way through Edmonds Community College. (She's now considering attending UW Bothell.)

Ellen Hawley McWhirter, a University of Oregon professor of counseling psychology who studies immigrant youth, says parents are often daunted by the costs of higher education.

"Parents are both very positive about education and very encouraging of doing well in school," she says, "and yet at the same time, they're struggling with this reality of how are they going to pay $12,000 or $20,000 for a year of schooling when they don't have the ability to take out loans?" 

'The Whole Package'

Escutia didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to go to community college; he wanted the four-year college experience.

"I'm a very stubborn person," Escutia said. "I kept telling them, 'I'm going to figure it out."'

Credit Martha Kang / KPLU
Carlos Escutia unloads his belongings from his family's minivan.

He buckled down, maintaining a 3.9 GPA — only a "hard math class" kept him from a 4.0. He applied for at least 30 private scholarships and packed his résumé with extracurricular activities and volunteer hours so his applications couldn't be easily set aside. And Escutia found mentors in his high school's career center and in Ray Corona, the managing director of the Washington Dream Act Coalition, who helped him set goals and flesh out a plan for making it to college.

When Corona first met the teen, "[Escutia] didn't know whether or not college was going to be possible," Corona recalls. Corona himself is undocumented, having arrived in the U.S. at the age of 9. He spoke in his capacity as a community organizer, but he's also an admissions representative at his alma mater, UW Bothell.

Escutia's efforts paid off. After gaining admission to UW, the school offered him a privately-backed diversity scholarship good for $10,000 in each of the next four years. In addition, his school district's alumni association offered him a $2,000 annual scholarship.

Finally, last spring, Escutia found out that the state's Dream Act had passed. State need grants would tie his college financing plan together. After a nearly $7,000 grant award, Escutia's out-of-pocket costs for going to college now add up to a less daunting sum. Instead of more than $27,000, he and his parents will pay closer to $6,000 per year.

But Corona notes Escutia is an extraordinary case. He has "the whole package," Corona says. Escutia is an involved student with a strong academic track record, and would be a strong candidate for merit-based scholarships anyway. But the Dream Act finally opens up aid that's based on need, not merit, to undocumented students.

"Prior to the Washington Dream Act being passed and having that as an option, a lot of [undocumented] students' mentality was, 'If I don't have the whole package, I'm not going to make it to college,'" says Corona. "With the Washington Dream Act now being passed, I think that mentality has definitely shifted."

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Ray Corona, managing director of the Washington Dream Act Coalition.

Policymakers may have to wrangle with the question of what that shift in mentality will cost. Though state lawmakers appropriated another $5 million to the state need grant program as part of the Dream Act, this additional funding would support an average of 1,200 students. Already, more than 2,000 have applied under the Dream Act's provisions.

Even before the new law's passage, a lack of sufficient funding from the state left thousands of students without state need grant awards. In 2012, more than 32,000 eligible students — one in four state need-grant applicants — didn't receive an award.

'I Don't Think It Should Be This Hard'

Even before Escutia has finished unpacking, his youngest sister is already making plans.

"When are we going to decorate our room?" asks Alandra Escutia, who just started kindergarten, as her family sits in the lobby of the dorm building.

She's not talking about his dorm room; she's talking about the room she and her brother had shared in their Lynnwood apartment.

Carlos Escutia is the first child to leave the house for school, his mother points out, dabbing away tears.

Credit Martha Kang / KPLU
Carlos Escutia sits in the lobby of his dorm building with his younger sisters Alandra, left, and Laura, right. They were both born in the U.S. and are citizens. His older sister Diana, not pictured, is also undocumented.

"I have a lot of mixed feelings," Rosas says. "I'm sad to see him go. But most of all, I'm so proud and happy for him."

Carlos Escutia hasn't made a final decision about his course of study yet — maybe criminal psychology, maybe physical therapy, maybe psychiatry.

He's much more certain, though, that the rocky road he traveled to college ought to be smoothed.

"I don't think it should be this hard," he says. "I don't think anyone who's willing to put so much work into bettering their education should have to go through all these loopholes."

"I don't think it should be important whether you were born in this country or not if you want to continue on with your education."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.