For Gabriela García, navigating higher education has come with plenty of challenges. Following high school, the undocumented student enrolled in community college because she didn’t qualify for financial aid. She eventually transferred to California State University, Los Angeles and made it through with the help of the California Dream Act, which allowed her to pay in-state tuition. Now, she attends the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she just wrapped up her second year. But during most of her quest through higher education, the cost of paying for tuition out of pocket has remained a burden. It’s her story that inspired a group of her classmates to create the Dreamer Fund – a student-run organization that seeks to make law school attainable for undocumented students in the Bay Area.
A few years ago, the President Barack Obama-enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program made it easier for undocumented immigrants to access higher education. However, DACA – which also keeps undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States at a young age safe from deportation and affords them the right to work in the country – doesn’t guarantee that undocumented students receive federal aid, state or college financial aid, or in-state tuition. Loans are also out of the question in many cases. It becomes even more difficult at a graduate level.
Two years ago, Gabriela started off paying the more than $50,000 law school tuition – which doesn’t include cost of living in San Francisco – on her own. “My first year, I had savings. I didn’t really need a lot of help with paying for tuition,” she told me in a phone interview. “But then, after that, my second year got a little bit more difficult. I started looking for as many scholarships as I could, but some of the scholarships [depend on] your status.”
García also knew that as someone who couldn’t dedicate as much time to her studies because she had to work, her grades would lag behind someone who could devote their entire time to studying.
Like many undocumented students, Gabriela kept her immigration status secret. But after becoming involved in La Raza Law Students Association, she began to open up to Monica Valencia, the club’s president at the time.
“Eventually, she just confided in me [about] her situation and some of the barriers she had, some of her struggles, and the frustrations in trying to secure funding,” Valencia told me in a phone interview. “I was one of those people that was kind of not informed, so I assumed that DREAMers or DACA students all had access to financial resources. That’s when I realized that this was not only an important issue, but a very real issue for fellow students.”
Valencia – who calculates that a year of law school tuition, housing, and other expenses in San Francisco amounts to $80,000 – knew she wanted to do something when Gaby revealed how difficult her journey had been. But It was when Gaby most needed help that she jumped into action. They hosted a panel for undocumented law school students in 2016 to find a solution – learning that despite many of them working two or three jobs, the money they saved went completely toward tuition but didn’t cover other necessities, like rent, food, and medical insurance. And those who couldn’t pay the $5,000 to $6,000 monthly payments risked losing their spots at the school. From that arose the Dreamer Fund.
Currently, the group is looking to raise at least $40,000 so that it can ease the burden of law school for several students. But the students behind the Dreamer Fund are looking for more permanent solutions.
“At the undergrad [level, undocumented students] have a lot of resources. They are able to access certain funds, certain scholarships,” Monica, who is the Dreamer Fund’s co-director, said. “Our goal is to not only raise funds and raise awareness around this particular issue, but also work with educational administrations that will listen and learn from the struggles of undocumented law students. We can collectively figure out ways to create a permanent solution for them, whether that’s subsidizing their tuition or creating a loan for them through the school since they can’t secure it on their own. DACA students, they’re not looking for a handout. They’re not looking for free money. They just want to have the same opportunity that we have.”
As the Dreamer Fund evolves, the team of eight behind the organization is gearing up for the next school year. As Gabriela explains, the group is currently working on developing a scholarship application for law students. The team will put in place a committee of six to decide which applicants receive the funds for the fall semester.
“Law school is hard enough, and it’s even harder when you don’t know what’s going to happen next semester just because you’re not able to pay for it,” Gabriela added. “I think … access to education should be available to everyone, regardless of immigration status. And the Dreamer Fund is a way of trying to achieve that goal of equity between students.”