As a high school senior in Los Angeles in 2008, Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca followed her classmates and diligently filled out her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. She would be the first in her family to attend college, she thought. But unlike those of her fellow classmates, her application was denied. Salamanca didn’t have a Social Security number—she was an undocumented immigrant—and no one told her she was ineligible for aid.
Each year about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools, but few of them make it to higher education, let alone graduate. Salamanca’s struggle to find money for college led her to create an app that helps undocumented students find scholarship opportunities.
Called DREAMer’s Roadmap, in reference to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act which Congress has failed to pass on multiple occasions, the free app contains a database of more than 500 scholarships available for undocumented students. It lets users find, save and share opportunities. Since the app launched nearly two months ago, more than 3,000 students have downloaded it and Salamanca is working with school districts and universities to grow its use. We caught up with her to learn more about her ambitious plans for helping undocumented students find the money to access—and graduate from—college.
What barriers do undocumented students face when it comes to college decisions?
Even just the thought of college for many low-income students is something that is not always on the radar. After deciding whether or not you’re going to go and trying to find people who are going to help you apply for college, the next barrier is finances. The majority of undocumented students don’t have the money. Their parents didn’t create a bank account where they were saving monthly to pay for college tuition.
So then you start looking for scholarships. In my case, I applied to what all of my other classmates were applying for, which was FAFSA, and I quickly found out that I didn’t qualify for that because I didn’t have a Social Security number when I graduated from high school.
Even with DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday to receive work permits] a lot of students are confused, because they have a Social, but they’re denied because they’re not permanent residents or legal citizens. Or sometimes they’ll even given the money but then they have to pay it back after the government figures out this person is not here as a permanent resident.
You’ve been tracking the availability of scholarships and aid for undocumented students for several years. How have the opportunities changed?
The opportunities are changing, especially since DACA came up. That was game-changing for so many students. A lot of scholarship providers only needed a Social to report. The opportunity for scholarship availability multiplied for DACA students.
We have a database that we created based on scholarships that already exist. There are local nonprofits here [in the Bay Area] who focus on this demographic already and generate lists. But the issue with those lists is that they aren’t maintained. A lot of the deadlines were past due; they were four years old. We did research for lists all across the country for students and we generated our own master database.
What have you learned from your users since DREAMer’s Roadmap launched in early April?
We’ve received emails from all across the country from people thanking us for creating this app. Even people who are residents and citizens are asking if we’re going to branch off and make it a general scholarship app—not just for undocumented students.
I think that is very inspiring. I’m aware that it’s not just undocumented students who are in need of a tool like this one. I focus on this group since I know how difficult it was for me when I graduated high school to find scholarships for students in my situation. But hopefully in the long run we can make being undocumented students be a filter on our app rather than just focusing on them.
Do you plan to keep the app free?
For now, yes. We feel that for at least the first year we want to keep it free and get a feel for our audience and all of the resources available. Maybe in the long run it will be sold to schools and districts, but it will always be free for students. The reason the app was free initially was because of the demographic that we’re serving. A lot of times this group doesn’t have a bank account, doesn’t have a credit card. There would be another obstacle to them being able to use the tool.
You were surprised to find out about scholarship opportunities as an undocumented student. How do students find out about the app?
Social media is a very big tool for outreach. We’re also doing very organic outreach with our network of local nonprofits in education. Right now we’re working to create partnerships with school districts so that they can have the resources—whether that’s flyers on their campus, or college counselors receiving a PowerPoint of how the app works, and they can share that with their students or just study it and help their students walk through downloading and using the app. We’re partners with U.C. Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program. Our vision is to be able to partner with every high school, every community college across the country so that they can be aware of our resources.