Undocumented students in Tennessee have been fighting for in-state tuition for years without getting very far. So, when the governor supported their proposal earlier this year, many felt like they finally had a chance. Then, legislation failed — again.
For undocumented students hoping to go to college this fall, another year of waiting. But as public policy stalls, Tennessee's private sector is stepping up to help them continue their education.
Josefina Boneo Anderson stands in front of a colorful mural inside Casa Azafran. The community center is home to Conexion Americas, a non-profit that works with Latinos in Nashville.
“This is them walking out into the sunlight after their graduation, " she says, pointing to the figures on the canvas. "And these are some of the aspirations they want to do — someone wants to be a musician, a doctor, a veterinarian…"
Anderson oversees the Escalera after school program at Overton High School. Her class made one of the paintings last year with the help of a Nashville muralist who volunteered his time.
Escalera, which means "ladder" in Spanish, is a private program funded by Conexion Americas that helps students at two local high schools find summer internships, apply for college and work out financial hurdles. For undocumented students, this is especially important. Without in-state tuition, even community college can cost upwards of $20,000 a year.
Forging A Path
Luis* is one of those students. During the first two years of high school, he says there wasn't much incentive to try — he wasn’t planning to go to college anyway.
"I just didn’t see it as an option."
Luis was 17 when he arrived in Nashville from Honduras, alone, in 2013. He had to drop out of school back home suddenly because he was in danger. Four of his family members were killed.
His parents tapped out their savings and paid a “coyote” to smuggle him into the U.S.
For 31 days the teen walked, rode on trains and hid from immigration officers. He crossed from Honduras, into Guatemala, and then from the southern tip of Mexico to the U.S. border, headed for Tennessee. The journey was well over 2,000 miles.
“It was really hard,” says Luis. “I got a really bad depression because I would not eat for weeks. I would just think about my family back in Honduras. When I arrived I only weighed 100 pounds.“
In Honduras, he was a high school senior. In Nashville, without school records, he had to enroll as a freshman at Glencliff High School.
He started from square one- learning colors, numbers and shapes in his ESL classes. Eventually his English got a little better.
Then, at the beginning of junior year, he stumbled upon an Escalera meeting. It was there that he first learned that undocumented students could actually go to college — and that there were some organizations willing to fund them.
It blew his mind. In his three years in the U.S., no teacher had told him that.
Filling The Gaps
That’s not surprising, says Renata Soto, executive director of Conexion Americas at Casa Azafran. She says many high school counselors and teachers are not trained to deal with the particular challenges facing undocumented students.
"It was obvious that children in high school were facing barriers that the school was not equipped to support them with."
At Metro Nashville Public Schools, less than two percent of teachers are Hispanic. Yet, Latino students make up more than one fifth of the student population. At schools like Overton and Glencliff, those numbers are even higher. That's why private organizations like Escalera are making their way into public schools.
Jacquelin* immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was in second grade. A few years ago she was able to receive legal protection under the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. But she says she knows first hand how difficult it can be for undocumented students to navigate the system — even after they learn the language. That's why she decided to become a teacher.
"I was by myself. I felt like it was just me. I was in a very diverse school, and yet we only had white teachers. There are certain things they just don't realize because they've never had to go through it."
The Overton senior found a lifeline after meeting Anderson and joining the Escalera program. There, she was introduced to the Pionero Scholars Program at Lipscomb University.
The program acts as a recruiting and scholarship resource for future educators, focusing on minorities who want to teach in Tennessee.
Jacquelin completed an internship and got to work in a real classroom. The teachers she met helped her apply for college, and edited her essays. In the end she was awarded a $10,000 scholarship to attend Lipscomb, which she can renew every year by maintaining a 3.0 GPA.
Jacquelin hopes that her experience growing up undocumented will allow her to better help her own students in the future as they navigate their way through public school — and into college.
Something To Believe In
Luis says things would have been different if he'd come across someone who understood his struggle sooner. After learning he might still be able to go to college, everything changed. He began taking honors classes, studying during his breaks at work. When it came down to applying for college, he had to take the ACT three times — each time his Escalera coordinator stayed late into the night with him, helping him cram.
It paid off. He was accepted to three private universities in Tennessee. Then, he got even better news. He had won a $25,000 scholarship, split over four years, from a Nashville nonprofit.
Leveling The Playing Field
Equal Chance for Education funds tuition for high achieving students who can’t access federal funding. Its founder Michael Spalding is an unexpected advocate — he is a wealthy, lifelong Republican.
“To me this is not a political issue; it’s a moral issue. If someone has been a good student, has never been in any sort of difficulty with the law, graduates with excellent grades and has what I call a real-word career goal, I think they should have an equal chance.”
Spalding became interested in the plight of undocumented students when he found out his housekeeper's daughter could not afford to go to college due to her legal status, despite being an Honors student.
He went down to her community college and offered to pay her tuition. What was originally a $7,000 bill quadrupled when he said her name. He was shocked. He began to research other options — and found nothing. So, he enrolled her at Lipscomb for a similar price tag and took on her debt.
Then, he met another undocumented student. A former valedictorian now flipping burgers. He helped him too. Then, things really took off.
Since 2014, Spalding and a small group of donors have awarded 4-year scholarships to more than 150 graduates, including Luis. They currently spend close to one million dollars a year on tuition.
The non-profit partners with private colleges like Lipscomb and Trevecca, which offer financial assistance and have publicly expressed support for students who are undocumented.
Too Much Need, Too Little Resources
But neither the universities nor Equal Chance can help every student that wants to go to college — or even most. There are estimated to be over 10,000 undocumented students in Tennessee. This year, Equal Chance funded 50 new scholarships.
So, what will happen to those who don’t earn one of the coveted spots?
“They’re probably not going to go college,” says Spalding.
Unless the state, or other private investors, step up.
Soto is hopeful that legislators will pass the tuition equity bill next year, which would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.
“The more that our legislators meet face to face these students, the aspirations that they have, it’s undeniable that we have to see the future of Tennessee in their eyes.”
In Luis's eyes, he sees himself as a doctor. That's what he painted on the mural at Casa Azafran before he graduated in May. He says deep down he's always known what he wanted to do.
“When I was 11 years old, my sister committed suicide. She was 19 years old. The closest hospital was about two hours away from my house. When my mom and my brother got there, it was already too late for her.”
That, says Luis, is his motivation to keep fighting.
In a few weeks, he will begin his first semester at Cumberland University — where he will study biology. And hopefully, go to medical school after. But even with a degree, he says that his future remains uncertain.
“I am really scared that any time I won't have this work permit anymore. You can’t work. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make it. Because it’s really hard to do it alone.”
But that's the next hurdle. For now, he says he’s one of the lucky ones who’s getting further than he’d ever thought he’d be.
* We are withholding Luis and Jacquelin's last names because of their immigration status.