‘A little bit of hope’: Local scholarship for DACA recipients has helped support 30 undocumented students

photo by: Contributed

Lawrence DACA Scholars program 2022-2023 scholarship recipient Lizbeth Villanueva

A lot of anti-immigrant policies came out of the last presidential administration, but in Lawrence what those years spurred was a program that has now helped 30 undocumented students in the area attend college.

The Lawrence DACA Scholars program began making and selling tamales in 2017 to fund scholarships for area recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA has allowed undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children within a certain time frame to remain in the country, to obtain work permits and driver’s licenses and to receive in-state college tuition in their home state.

Among them is Lawrence resident and DACA Scholars program recipient Lizbeth Villanueva, who said she was about 13 years old when the DACA program began, prompting her mom to ask her about her education goals and whether she wanted to apply to DACA.

“Somehow I already knew by that age that I did want to go to college, and I said that really confidently,” Villanueva said.

However, that goal meant dealing with additional hurdles, both financial and otherwise. Though DACA allows recipients to avoid paying out-of-state tuition, recipients remain ineligible for state and federal financial aid, including Federal Pell Grants for low-income students and other assistance provided through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

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While the Lawrence DACA Scholars program is meant to help students out financially, it hopes to communicate something more as well.

The origin of the scholarship program dates to the 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump announced his candidacy with a speech that included statements about immigrants from Mexico being murderers and rapists, foreshadowing a campaign and a presidency that relied heavily on anti-immigrant policies, which included attempts to end DACA, extension of the wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and the forced separation of immigrant children from their parents.

Chuck Olcese, who is involved with the program, said a group called the Lawrence Interfaith Refugee and Immigrant Ministry (LIRIM) started in November 2016 in reaction to the presidential campaign, eventually giving rise to the scholarship committee. He said the group began with a meeting of about 60 people of various faiths in Lawrence who were concerned about the anti-immigration rhetoric. After hosting a panel of young local DACA recipients in 2017, LIRIM came together with Centro Hispano to create a committee for the scholarship program as a way to support DACA students.

“We were overwhelmed with their desire to really want to succeed and seeing DACA as the one point of hope that they had that they could continue their education and get some recognition, as far as being able to get a Social Security number, a driver’s license and things like that,” Olcese said.

Olcese said while he realizes the scholarship can do only so much to help the students financially, the program hopes to communicate to them that there are people who support them and want them to succeed.

“Give a little bit of hope, I think,” Olcese said. “Provide students with something that says there is a group out here who really care about what you’re trying to do and want to encourage you to continue doing that.”

The program also recognizes that DACA recipients, because they don’t qualify for government scholarships due to their undocumented status, face unique financial burdens when seeking to attend college.

“The creation of the scholarship came out of a recognition that undocumented students, while they are allowed to attend universities in Kansas, are essentially locked out of many, if not most, scholarship programs, especially any kind of government — state or federal — aid,” Olcese said.

Both issues came to bear in Villanueva’s experience.

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Villanueva said she knows DACA recipients who were so affected by the anti-immigration rhetoric that proliferated during the Trump administration that they abandoned their studies, and she was almost one of them.

Villanueva was brought from Mexico to Kansas at the age of 3, settling with her family in Overland Park. She graduated from high school in 2016, amid the same rhetoric that prompted the creation of the scholarship program. She said the things she was hearing and seeing at that time affected her, and she began doubting whether she wanted to go to school, not just because of the cost, but because she felt the place she called home didn’t necessarily want her here.

“I feel like it opened more people to feel OK with showing their racism toward immigrants, and it was really hard,” Villanueva said. “It was always a subject of discussion at school, at my job, online.”

She said she went through some really rough patches, but did end up enrolling at Johnson County Community College and earning an associate’s degree over a four-year period. She completed her first year at the University of Kansas last year, and is majoring in film with a minor in psychology. After she graduates, she would like to attend a graduate program for film or potentially jump directly into making films, including films to spread awareness about mental health issues.

Villanueva said even getting to KU was a big step.

“I’m the first in my family to attend a four-year university, which is a real big deal for my parents and something that I’m very proud to be accomplishing,” Villanueva said. “Not just for myself but also for them.”

The work permit Villanueva receives through DACA allows her to get a job to help pay expenses, but going into her senior year at KU, she was only planning to take four classes, the minimum for full-time status, because of the cost. She said receiving a scholarship for the upcoming year though the Lawrence DACA Scholars program helped change that, allowing her to enroll in an additional class, Women in Politics.

“It’s to satisfy a (course requirement) at KU, but I’m very excited to take it because I think it will be very educational, and I’m hoping to get the most out of it,” Villanueva said. “So it has helped me, more than anything, to ease the financial burden that I think a lot of us DACA students carry with us.”

But still, Villanueva and other DACA recipients contend with uncertainties. Some state courts have challenged the DACA program, and some think it could potentially end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Villanueva said that while she is grateful for the program, it has its limitations. She noted that under DACA, she has to renew her application every two years and does not have permission to leave the country. DACA was created by an executive order during the administration of President Barack Obama and was meant to be a stopgap measure. What she’d really like to see is permanent legislation that creates a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. She doesn’t have any memory of Mexico, and it’s hard for her to imagine having to return there.

“If I were ever to go back there or if DACA ended, I would have no idea how to fit into that community,” she said. “I think it’d be really hard, because I grew up here in America since I was very young, and it’s the only home that I know.”

The scholarship program has expanded over the years and hopes to help more students like Villanueva with their educational goals. Olcese said that for the first few years, the committee made tamales to help fund the scholarships, which initially were $500 per semester. The COVID-19 pandemic ultimately ended that tradition, but the group continues to host fundraiser events — such as its recent Margaritas for Margarita event — and to accept donations.

The program now provides students $1,000 per semester and has provided scholarships to about 30 students since it began in 2017. Olcese said the scholarship program still needed to raise $1,000 to meet this year’s goal of funding five students at $2,000 annually, Villanueva among them.

Trinity Episcopal Church houses the scholarship fund, and people can donate directly to the fund at trinitylawrence.org by clicking on the donate button and then on the DACA icon. The program is currently open to residents of Douglas County and surrounding counties, and those interested in applying can email lawrencedacascholars@gmail.com.


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