Campus discusses allocation plans for undocumented student aid initiative

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Less than a week after receiving more information regarding the allocation of UC President Janet Napolitano’s $5 million initiative to aid undocumented students, UC Berkeley administrators are already developing a plan to fund enhanced student services and expand financial aid opportunities for these individuals.

Napolitano outlined the allocation of the initiative in a letter sent to the chancellors Dec. 18. According to the letter, UC Berkeley will receive $660,000 in total, $250,000 of which will go toward funding more student services such as resource centers and advising programs. The remaining $410,000 will be used for financial aid, which is to be split between work-study positions and a loan program for undocumented students.

In the letter, Napolitano encouraged campuses to consult with student leaders and organizations as they develop their plans. Though the allocation was recently announced, some students on campus have already been involved in systemwide discussions regarding the funds.

Sophomore Ivan Villasenor Madriz, an undocumented student, spoke with representatives from the UC Office of the President and other undocumented student representatives across the UC campuses in a conference call the evening of Dec. 18.

Madriz said the students raised concerns about the use of the funds for loans rather than other types of aid such as grants and work-study. He said loans should not be considered “aid” because they are only increasing student debt and putting more pressure on students.

“The loans that are given out are making one hole to fill another,” he said. “It defeats the purpose of so-called ‘financial aid.’ ”

Activist group BAMN shares similar sentiments. David Douglass, a UC Berkeley BAMN leader, said the UC Regents should call for a Federal Dream Act.

“We think that the 5 million dollars will have an impact,” Douglass said in an email, “if the money goes directly into the pockets of undocumented students.”

However, Rachelle Feldman, the assistant vice chancellor and director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office, said UC Berkeley’s financial aid office strongly supports the use of the funds for the creation of such a loan program.

UC Berkeley intends to invest additional funds, outside of the allocated amount from the initiative, into the 2014-15 loan program to ensure that undocumented students have the same financial aid rewards as documented students in their same financial situations, Feldman said.

According to Feldman, an institutional program would replace federal loans, and the current one-time funds can be transformed into ongoing support for undocumented students.

“While the campus certainly could use more funds for (work-study and grant and scholarship aid) especially as we are backfilling for the Pell grants and other federal aid these students would receive if there were a federal dream act, the big gap in undocumented students’ financial aid packages is loans,” she said in an email.

According to Feldman, undocumented students at UC Berkeley have equal eligibility and opportunities for grant and scholarship aid and, if they are under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, qualify for work-study.

However, another concern raised by students was aid for those not under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

UC Berkeley senior and undocumented student Nina Smirnov participated in a conference call, a follow-up to the discussion with the UC Office of the President, with UCLA Undocumented Student Program coordinator Angel Chen and other UC students.

Smirnov said there are still many students not eligible for some of the programs designed to help undocumented students, such as those who did not apply for the California Dream Act or who do not meet the criteria for AB 540, an assembly bill that gives undocumented students in-state tuition.

“There are students on a larger plane who are just being totally left in the dust,” Smirnov said. “Within the marginalized community, there is a marginalized group, and they’ve been struggling.”

Smirnov said she still knows of students who are homeless and not eating. Madriz also mentioned a friend who was “surviving off of Hot Cheetos” for a week.

But Smirnov said the key starting point to address the various issues is more transparency, organization and cooperation from UC administration.

Earlier this year, Smirnov was among a number of students who had a portion of their financial aid cut. While her tuition and house rent were paid for in fall 2012 and spring 2013, her rent aid was cut last semester without prior notice or explanation, she said, forcing her to apply for an emergency housing grant.

“My issue is not with the amount of funding; it’s just the lack of organization about how it’s all going to be done and how it’s all going to be carried out,” Smirnov said. “The lack of transparency and the lack of conversation — that’s what troubles me.”

Upon accepting the funds, each campus is to appoint a staff member to serve as a point of contact for undocumented students. According to Feldman, the coordinator of the Undocumented Student Program on campus, Meng So, already fulfills this role.

Each campus is expected to submit a plan no later than the end of February 2014 detailing how it will use its portion of the initiative. The letter also stated that the funds are part of a one-time allocation to be used up between now and June 2016. Any additional funds not expended will be returned to the Mortgage Origination Program, from which the funds were taken.

Tahmina Achekzai covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.