Campus awards scholarships to about 140 students under DREAM Act

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For one undocumented UC Berkeley junior, a scholarship has meant the opportunity to dream again.

Born in Japan, the student — who asked to remain anonymous to protect her immigration status — had a less-than-perfect childhood. After her family moved to California about 20 years ago, her undocumented father was diagnosed with cancer and could not access treatment without a health care plan. Shortly after, he died.

She spent years feeling trapped, relying on friends for transportation, ineligible to get a license or a job without documentation.

“I must blend in, keep quiet and not get in trouble with the law or I will be removed from the country and sent back to a place where I barely speak the language and to a culture that is completely foreign to me,” she said.

When she applied to college, she found herself trapped once again, faced with ineligibility to receive loans, most scholarships and financial aid.

The California DREAM Act changed that.

Since Jan. 1, UC Berkeley has awarded approximately 140 scholarships to students under the first part of the act — otherwise known as AB 130 — according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

AB 130, which was signed into law on June 25 of last year, allows undocumented students who meet certain criteria to receive private scholarships awarded by public California colleges and universities.

The Berkeley Undergraduate DREAM Act scholarship reflects the campus’ sentiment — posted on the campus financial aid website — that “students who attended and graduated from high school in California, but are not legal residents … should not be disregarded or their future jeopardized because of their immigration status.”

Just under 150 students applied for the scholarship this semester, according to Rachelle Feldman, assistant vice chancellor and director of financial aid and scholarships. Of the scholarship recipients, just over 20 did not meet the 3.0 GPA requirement and were granted the scholarships based on appeals, said Feldman in an email.

Approximately $1 million in scholarships — funded by a combination of private gifts and endowments — was awarded in total, with each award amount varying by each student’s financial need. Most awards “generally covered tuition and fees,” Feldman said in the email.

“The generosity of donors and the leadership of our administration and students made an incredible difference in students’ lives,” said Gladys Castro, co-chair of the student group Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education and a student on campus. “It’s eased the worry of how one would cover tuition, books, rent and food.”

For the undocumented junior from Japan, the scholarship did more than just ease her financial worries — it acted as a personal reward, proving to her that “all (her) hard work has paid off.”

“Despite the barriers that I have faced, I have made it to this school and have been awarded for getting over those obstacles,” she said. “Without (the scholarship), I would probably be stuck in an under-the-table job for the rest of my life.”

In October, Brown signed the second part of the DREAM Act — AB 131 — which allows undocumented students to apply for and receive state financial aid, such as Cal Grants. At the beginning of April, applications opened for state-funded grants and scholarships for AB 131 students.

The DREAM Act — especially AB 131 — has faced strong opposition from Republican groups since its inception. In January, Assemblymember Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, led efforts to put a referendum to repeal the act up for vote. The campaign fell short of the 500,000 petition signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot.

On its website, the group leading the campaign, which calls the legislation the “California Nightmare Act,” says the law is one that “undeniably rests on a larger scheme of amnesty.”

But campus Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri said that the scholarship helps to keep students with particularly difficult financial situations on the track to graduation.

“These students are from underrepresented groups … many of them have amazing stories, which other students greatly benefit from getting to know better,” Basri said in an email.

Feldman said that “it is the goal to award every eligible student” by covering tuition and fees for those that need it most.

For the undocumented junior, the DREAM Act scholarship is more than just money — it is a step closer to achieving her goals.

“I believe everybody has the right to dream and no person is illegal,” she said.

Geena Cova covers academics and administration.