In May, Evelyn Lemus Silva graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University as a Barnard Award recipient, the most prestigious undergraduate award bestowed by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System. She was a biology major, has a research job lined up at Stanford University and plans to go to medical school in the future. She is also an undocumented immigrant.
Silva, who entered the United States from Mexico at the age of 7, is one of the first 43 students to graduate from Eastern thanks to a scholarship from TheDream.US, a privately funded program that supports undocumented immigrants and those with Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals status, called DACA for short, who live in states where they are disqualified from receiving in-state tuition, financial aid or attending public university.
“I graduated from high school in 2016 and given my background status as a DACA student I didn’t expect to go away to college,” said Silva.
Her original plan was to get a job at a fast food restaurant near her family’s home in North Carolina and work her way through community college.
“Getting that scholarship completely changed life for myself and my family,” said Silva. “I’m very thankful and also want to give back to my family. Right now, I’m trying to help my sister who is in high school. I’m preparing her and giving her advice for college.”
The scholarship allowed Silva to attend Eastern, participate in on-campus research, secure internships during the summer and travel throughout the Northeast.
Pilot programs for the aid began in 2016 at Eastern Connecticut State University and Delaware State University. Today 70 universities participate and Eastern has 205 students that are part of the program. Some of these students, like Silva, have received a full package of aid including tuition, room and board and others who grew up in Connecticut are able to pay the reduced, in-state rate.
“From what I’ve seen our campus atmosphere has really changed since these students arrived,” said Maribel Sanchez, the program coordinator and advisor at Eastern. “They have brought to the forefront issues on immigration and things that our campus community may not have immediately thought of.”
Although the program was originally planned for only four cohorts, a fifth will begin classes in the fall.
“We are hoping to continue the program after this year, but it will be a year-by-year decision,” Sanchez said. “It just depends on fundraising.”
Since TheDream.US’ pilot program began at Eastern, undocumented immigrants have grown to represent 4 percent of the student population at the university. And with average GPA of 3.8 and four-year graduation rate of 96 percent, school officials say that the Class of 2020, and others enrolled in the program at Eastern, are among the school’s brightest students.
But it’s a population, Sanchez says, that often feels on tenterhooks.
Although many of the current scholars have qualified for DACA status under a 2012 Obama Administration executive order, the future of that status remains uncertain.
In a 5-4 decision on June 18, the United States Supreme Court upheld the original executive order establishing DACA, ruling that whatever the merits of the program, the Trump administration had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in overturning the program.
“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. ‘The wisdom’ of those decisions ‘is none of our concern,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court opinion. “We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.”
For the time being, Sanchez said, she will be encouraging students to reapply and renew their DACA status, but whether the program will be overturned in a manner acceptable to the court, or continue in the long term, remains unclear.
This story was edited to clarify that TheDream.US is a privately funded program