August 28, 2014

Services available for undocumented students in Merced

Changes to laws that govern residency and financial aid have opened doors for undocumented students to get services, and last month UC Merced added a new position focused on helping that and other specialty populations succeed.

Changes to laws that govern residency and financial aid have opened doors of opportunity for undocumented students, and UC Merced has added a new position this school year focused on helping that population succeed.

A UC Merced junior, Luz Sandoval was brought at age 14 to California from Mexico by her mother. She said it was already tough adjusting to college, but she has the added stress of deportation in the back of her mind. “I was afraid, like, ‘What if the police come over here?’ and then I get scared,” the 20-year-old said.

Originally from San Bernardino, she said meeting other undocumented students made it easier to be comfortable and to identify herself, which also allowed her to take advantage of options open to her.

Like first-generation students, undocumented students often don’t have an older role model who can give them advice. But the undocumented are also dealing with trying to qualify for in-state tuition rates, financial aid and deferred action – a federal policy that allows qualified students to continue their education without deportation.

Sandoval and a few other students shared their stories during an orientation Tuesday at UC Merced for undocumented students, which was overseen by an administrator whose new position works with special populations on campus such as those who are undocumented.

UC Merced has 114 incoming undocumented students, and last year had 124 enrolled, according to Alex Delgadillo, associate director of the Calvin E. Bright Center at UC Merced. He is in charge of special populations at the university.

Taking the tally of undocumented students is an inexact science, he said, but UC Merced’s percentage is among the highest in the University of California system. With an expected 6,360 students this year, the school is also much smaller than its counterparts, with enrollments ranging from 15,000 to 30,000.

There are an estimated 2,000 undocumented undergraduates enrolled in the 10 UC campuses. UC President Janet Napolitano has also allocated $5 million in one-time funds to assist undocumented students.

UC Merced’s ability to offer financial aid, Delgadillo said, and the city’s affordable cost of living are likely tempting for the students.

Changes in public opinion could also help students reach out for help. A June poll from Politico found that 62 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship for those living in the U.S. without documents, assuming they meet some requirements.

“Because of the state of California, I think it’s easier for them to acknowledge that they’re undocumented,” Delgadillo said. “There’s no longer a stigma. In the past, maybe 10 years ago, students were living in the shadows.”

State laws in the past decade have also allowed students who meet certain requirements, such as graduating from a state high school and attending that school for at least three years, to pay the much cheaper in-state resident fees and possibly qualify for financial aid.

Counting the number of undocumented students is not any easier at the community college level.

Raul Alcala, a Merced College counselor, said about 400 students at the school filled out paperwork to qualify for in-state fees. As of last week, Merced College reported enrollment of 10,221.

Alcala said students are becoming more open about reporting their status to college staff, but there is still a way to go to educate them at the high school level. He said doors have been opened by the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation, which allows eligible students to ask for temporary relief from deportation.

Getting young people educated about their options is particularly important for those headed to a community college, he said, because they are more likely to be looking for information on their own.

The difference in fees paid by in-state residents and those out of state for a semester at Merced College can be eye-popping, he said. For example, he said, those fees can be $480 versus $4,000, respectively.

“Sometimes we don’t even see students, because they see this bill of $4,000 and they never come in (for counseling),” he said. “They say, ‘Forget it, I can’t pay that.’ ”

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