At the end of my first year of teaching, Maria, one of my sixth-graders, wrote this to me:
Before you, school just wasn’t my thing. But you showed me that hard work pays off! I went from wanting to drop out ASAP to wanting to go to college and get the degree I need to become a lawyer! In memory of you, I will stay in school and that’s a promise I won’t break.
On my hardest days, Maria’s words are a constant reminder of why I teach: I want to inspire Maria and hundreds of other students like her to overcome the barriers of poverty and race that stand between them and their tremendous potential.
Most of my students are the children of Mexican immigrants. The reality is that some of them are probably undocumented, and therefore can never afford the college education I urge them to crave.
Indiana, where I live, is one of just three states that specifically prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition at public universities. This was true even before the future of undocumented students became seriously imperiled by the possible termination of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
DACA had allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and met certain requirements to continue living, working and studying here. Regardless of what decisions will be made in the wake of DACA on the federal level, Indiana should offer in-state tuition for undocumented students who have attended school in the state for 10 or more years.
Children who have gone to school here that long are American in every sense. Many of them have no memory of any other country.
Not only are kids who have lived here for so long invested in our country—our country has invested in them. Indiana’s schools—just like schools in every state—are legally required to educate undocumented students until the 12th grade.
Depending on the school district, we as taxpayers spend roughly $155,000 to $175,000 on the education of each of these children from first through 12th grade.
Why pour all this money into their elementary, middle and high school education just to cut them off at the college level practically guaranteeing that they won’t be able to maximize their potential to contribute to our state’s economy?
Many states have passed legislation that could serve as a model. In California, undocumented students are not only eligible for in-state tuition, but can also receive financial aid from a variety of sources, including Cal Grants, the largest fund for state financial aid.
California also created a FAFSA-style application for undocumented students that streamlines the process of identifying possible sources of financial aid. In 2011, Illinois passed a DREAM Act that created a privately-funded scholarship pool for undocumented students, which followed a 2003 law that made undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition.
Students like mine know no country but this one. They’ve worked tirelessly in school and they want to contribute to the society that raised them.
I recently attended an eighth-grade graduation ceremony for Maria’s class. Each of my former students gave a speech—in both Spanish and English—and every single one spoke about their dream of attending college and their desire to make the world a better place. Among them were self-declared future lawyers, orthodontists, car mechanics, teachers and politicians—and regardless of their chosen path, they were bursting with optimism.
Denying a realistic chance of attending college to these students is not only morally reprehensible, it is economically irresponsible.
Maria also included a gift with her letter: a ring with a note attached. The note said it was a promise ring “for my promise to do my best in school and in life!” She deserves a state that gives her the opportunity to fulfill that promise.