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Community Colleges

Restoring Dreams for Immigrant Students

University Business, Nov 2011

Many people probably only think about Napa when they’re thinking about wine. And while the Napa Valley of California does have world-class grapes, it’s also home to a huge population of Mexican immigrant laborers responsible for this wine behind the scenes—and their undocumented children looking for an education.

“Many of [these students] have been here the greater period of their life,” says Oscar de Haro, vice president for student services at Napa Valley College. “They reflect the values of Napa, the workforce of Napa.”

Now, because of the California Dream Act, undocumented students at Napa Valley College and throughout the state of California will have a chance at some of the same educational benefits as their classmates who were born in the United States.

The act, passed by Gov. Jerry Brown on October 8, grants illegal immigrants access to state financial aid at public universities and community colleges beginning in 2013. Students who graduated from a California high school after attending school in the state for at least three years, and are in the process of applying to legalize their immigration status, will be eligible to apply for Cal-Grants and institutional grants. They will also be able to obtain fee waivers in the community college system.

There are more than 25,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school in California each year, and many feed into the state’s community college system, which is the largest higher education system in the country, comprised of 72 districts and 112 colleges.

De Haro and many of his colleagues at Napa Valley, which currently serves 150 undocumented students, see the passage of the Dream Act as an opportunity—both for the students and for the state.

“Many of us will be retiring within the next five to eight years,” de Haro says. “For the economic well-being of California, we need these young people to get their education and to continue the tax-paying process so we can actually retire.”

Jose Hernandez, director of the institution’s MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement) program, agrees with de Haro. “Those folks who don’t believe the Dream Act is a good thing will say there’s more cost the colleges will have to endure,” he says. “My reaction is, we already have that group here. I don’t expect a major surge in new population.”