Living the Dream: This Nonprofit Helps College Become Reality for Undocumented Immigrants

By Aaron Wiener (Washington City Paper) – College was out of the question for Sadhana Singh. It’s not that she wasn’t a strong student: She finished 11th in her high school graduating class. But as she moved through her senior year, her thoughts were on finding work after graduation. Her chances at post-secondary education, she was sure, were nil.

“It was completely zero,” she says. “I knew from the beginning of our situation, and I was always thinking of another path that I was going to do after high school. I always figured that college was not in the cards for me.”

Singh’s family immigrated to Monroe, Ga., from Guyana, in South America, in 1999, when she was 13. Her parents had gotten tourist visas for the family, which soon expired. “They weren’t educated enough to go through the proper channels to get even student visas,” she says. Instead, the family found itself living in the U.S. without legal authorization.

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for federal financial aid like Pell Grants. Singh also had the misfortune of landing in a state with particularly restrictive policies: Georgia prohibits undocumented immigrants from attending five of the state’s most competitive public colleges and universities, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. At other public institutions, undocumented students are ineligible for in-state tuition.

And so, lacking the funds to pay her own way through an expensive college, Singh found a job as a laboratory technician at an archaeological firm in Stone Mountain, Ga. Her father, the only member of the family who was able to get a driver’s license, drove her 45 minutes each way. She worked there for nine years.

One day last year, a coworker of Singh’s was listening to NPR and heard a story about a new scholarship program for people like her. He told her about it, and she immediately applied. In the fall, she enrolled at Trinity Washington University, in Edgewood, where she’s now most of the way through her freshman year.

At 28, she’s older than most of her classmates, and she’s found urban living—she resides on campus—to be an adjustment after her Georgia upbringing. But she’s loving her time at Trinity, and it’s loving her back. In her first semester, she earned a 4.0 grade point average and made the dean’s list.

Singh’s story, or some version of it, is shared by 22 other students at Trinity, and nearly 800 around the country. Those numbers should double next year and triple the year after. All of the success stories behind those figures were made possible by an unlikely alliance between an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, a businessman and Democratic party activist from Texas, the former U.S. secretary of commerce under George W. Bush, and the chief executive of what at the time was D.C.’s most powerful media company.


Don Graham wasn’t new to college-sup-port programs for underserved populations. In 1999, Graham—the longtime publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, and the CEO of Graham Holdings Company since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013—became founding chairman of the District of Columbia College Access Program, which provides D.C. public high school students with counseling and financial support as they apply to and attend college. Early in the program, DC-CAP’s president, Argelia Rodriguez, brought to Graham’s attention the challenges faced by undocumented students who couldn’t obtain federal tuition grants.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be super tough,’” Graham recalls. “Our aim was to get everyone in D.C. public schools to go to college.”

At the time, Graham says, there still weren’t that many undocumented students in D.C. high schools. Over the years, though, the numbers rose, particularly in schools near heavily Latino Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant. In 2001, Congress had first considered the DREAM Act, which would provide legal residency to certain immigrants brought into the country illegally as minors who later graduated from high school. Immigration activists increasingly focused their attention on assisting these so-called DREAMers, who had not themselves decided to immigrate and who could bring economic benefits to the country if they were permitted to attend college and work legally.

“I became aware of how many DREAMers there were in D.C.,” says Graham, “which brought my attention to how many they were in the country.” (Estimates vary on the number of DREAMers in the country, but as of Dec. 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had approved nearly 640,000 applications for deferred deportation under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has similar eligibility criteria.)

Graham started talking about the DREAMers issue to Henry Muñoz III, a San Antonio, Texas, architecture and design firm CEO and Democratic party leader, and Carlos Gutierrez, who had run the Commerce Department under the second President Bush. Muñoz soon introduced him to a young activist named Gaby Pacheco, a native of Ecuador who in 2010 had led a 1,500-mile march from Miami to D.C. to promote the DREAM Act.

Pacheco’s high school experience was similar to Singh’s. “My college counselor told me that I wouldn’t be able to go to college” due to her undocumented status, Pacheco remembers. “My adviser told me, ‘Just look forward to finding a job after high school.’” She eventually succeeded in attending Miami Dade College, where she began her activism.

In February 2014, Graham, Muñoz, Gutierrez, Pacheco, and other partners launched TheDream.US, a scholarship fund that covers tuition, up to $25,000 over four years, for students who can’t receive federal aid due to their immigration status. It works with partner institutions across the country, principally public colleges and universities where students must be eligible for in-state tuition in order to receive the scholarship.

Graham wanted to work with a school in D.C., where he lives and the program is based. But most local schools, like Georgetown and George Washington and American University, are private institutions that cost far more than the scholarship can cover.

“We looked for a place with a low price but a pretty high graduation rate,” says Graham. “And year in, year out, Trinity has done really well by D.C. public school students.”

Trinity wasn’t a conventional choice. For one thing, it’s a private school with a $22,000 annual tuition. For another, its full-time undergraduate program is open only to women.

But under President Pat McGuire, Trinity had long brought a social mission to its academic program. Founded in 1897 as a female counterpart to neighboring, then-all-male Catholic University, Trinity thrived for most of a century and boasted alumni like Nancy Pelosi (class of 1962) and Kathleen Sebelius (1970). But with the advent of widespread co-ed higher education, enrollment plummeted, and prestige went along with it. Upon becoming president in 1989, McGuire sought to turn the school’s fortunes around by attracting low-income, largely minority students from the D.C. area. Some alumni put up a fight, but McGuire is now widely credited with rescuing a school that was on the verge of collapse.

McGuire also wanted to bring undocumented students into the fold, but she wasn’t sure how, given the unavailability of federal funding. “We don’t have a very big endowment, so trying to figure out how to do that was a big challenge for Trinity,” she says. “And then two or three years ago, Don came to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in participating in this program?’ It was music to my ears, because it was the solution to the problem we’d been wrestling with.”

Now, 23 students with TheDream.US scholarships attend Trinity, comprising nearly 10 percent of this year’s freshman class. The school discounts the portion of their tuition not covered by the scholarships. These DREAMers are mostly commuter students from the D.C. area, since Trinity can’t afford to comp their room and board. Some graduated from predominantly Latino high schools where Trinity had been recruiting previously, like the Columbia Heights Education Campus.

But for a school that’s focused on local students—more than half of the student body is from D.C., according to McGuire, and another 30 percent is from Maryland—Trinity is becoming something of a national draw for DREAMers. That’s because for students like Singh, who have no options in their home states and don’t qualify for in-state tuition elsewhere, Trinity is one of the few places that will actually take them.

Andrea Pinillos fits the more typical mold for Trinity. After immigrating to Miami in 2002, when she was 11, her family soon settled in Manassas, Va., where they still live. Pinillos graduated from high school in 2010 and started taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College. But because her immigration status disqualified her from in-state tuition, she could only afford to take one class at a time—“it was a crazy amount of money,” she says—and then she stopped going altogether.

She worked as a waitress, hoping she could save up to take two or three more classes at the college. It didn’t work out. Last year, she found herself in her fourth year waiting tables.

And then, one night, she was watching the news on Univision’s D.C. affiliate, and Pacheco appeared on her screen.

“Gaby Pacheco was on TV promoting the scholarship and asking people to apply,” she says. “So I applied the next day.”

Four days a week, she drives to Vienna and rides the Metro to Brookland. The round trip takes her three hours, but she says, “It’s nothing compared to what I’m getting, the full ride. It’s worth it.” Like Singh, she’s on the dean’s list.

Graham isn’t surprised by the strong academic record of the DREAMers thus far. He sums up their motivation with one word: deprivation. “They’d been told they can’t go to college,” he says. “And for at least some DREAMers, their reaction is, ‘I’m going to work harder and show you that I really deserve to go to college.’”

TheDream.US has raised more than $45 million from individual donors and foundations like the New York-based Pershing Square Foundation, which pledged $10 million last month, and now works with over 50 partner institutions. Graham hopes to continue multiplying those numbers in future years, though he acknowledges he can never help the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who struggle to attend college. McGuire, for her part, plans to continue enrolling about 25 DREAMers a year, giving the school a total of around 100 once the program enters its fourth year. She hopes other private schools, those with greater resources than Trinity, will follow its lead.

“If a school like Trinity can figure it out,” she says, “then surely much wealthier institutions can figure it out.”

Singh and Pinillos are both majoring in communications and plan to become journalists. Singh wants to work as an investigative reporter, ideally in the Middle East. And Pinillos? She hopes to emerge from Trinity the same way she ended up there, on Spanish-language TV news.

Link to article.