Beating the System: Undocumented Students Get Their Own College

National Dream University's one-year program aims to educate illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrant, undocumented student, graduation
National Dream University offers undocumented students an alternative way to go to college. (Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Each year, more than 50,000 undocumented immigrant students graduate high school in the United States.

Many of these students would like to attend college, but that’s no easy task. Only three states—Texas, California and New Mexico—allow illegal immigrants to qualify for state financial aid for college. Some states— Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, for example—even ban illegal immigrants from attending public colleges.

While President Barack Obama announced in June that he was halting deportations for law-abiding young immigrants brought to the country illegally, many of them still cannot find a college to attend because of their status.

More: DREAM Fulfilled? Undocumented Immigrant Speaks Out

Enter the National Dream University, a program that will allow students to take online classes toward a degree.

“We hope through the development of this ‘National Dream University’ and its network of faculty that it will provide education resources for students who can either use these credits to transfer to another college or obtain a degree,” Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research, said in an interview.

Wong has led the effort for the college through the UCLA Center for Labor Research and the National Labor College. A national network of professors will teach classes and mentor students. Students can download readings and lectures, submit papers online, and receive feedback. Students must also attend a mandatory student orientation in Maryland in February and a student closing ceremony in December 2013 at UCLA. The cost for one year is $2,490.

Students who complete the one-year coursework will receive a one-year certificate of 18 credits by the UCLA Labor Center and National Labor College.

Initially, 35 students will attend the first class in January. Students who apply must have graduated from a high school in the United States and have a minimum 2.7 grade point average. The curriculum will focus on immigrant rights, labor, and social justice issues.

The online university has come under fire from anti-immigration groups, who believe the program has a left-leaning ideology.

Georgia has created a similar program, called Freedom University, to counter its state law preventing immigrants from attending state universities. Its website says, “We believe that all Georgians have an equal right to a quality education. Separate and unequal access to higher education contravenes this country’s most cherished principles of equality and justice for all.”

Wong said he created this program after 20 years of research in undocumented immigrant students. That research was published in a book, Underground Undergrad. His latest book, Undocumented and Unafraid, is a reference to the popular slogan in the immigrant youth movement. In the immigration battle, it is often forgotten that many of these students arrive in this country as young children. They consider the United States home.

“Through this research, I came to appreciate the huge barriers that are preventing immigrant students from achieving their dreams,” Wong said.

In 2007, the Dream Resource Center taught the first course on undocumented immigrant students.

Wong said Obama’s DREAM Act—which has still not become federal law and would provide permanent residency for high school graduates who entered the country illegally as minors and who meet specific criteria—will help students pursue their college aspirations. This program is just one opportunity to allow them a chance for some sort of higher education that they may not be able to receive in their own states.

Other immigrant students who have already graduated from college or are working toward doctorate degrees will also teach and mentor the students.

“This is part of the philosophy of this project,” Wong said. “We are utilizing DREAM Act students for their knowledge and experience.”

Wong hopes to expand this program so that hundreds of illegal immigrants who want to attend college can have access. He expects to have more applications than spots available for this first class.

“They are being denied educational opportunities and their ability to contribute to their society,” Wong said. “We’re very hopeful that after this first year we will have enhanced funding and will be able to significantly expand.”

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