Like many undocumented immigrant students, Emilio Vicente said he knew early in high school that he would have trouble attending college — and that worry made him depressed.
“I definitely went through that, senior year,” he said. “I was aware that even if I got accepted, there was no way I could pay for a lot of the schools.”
Vicente, now a freshman public policy major at UNC and an immigration activist, said good grades, a mentor and a scholarship helped him to join the ‘lucky few’ undocumented immigrants who make it to college.
Local school officials say they often see undocumented students who experience depression or suicide ideation in the face of uncertain futures — and not all students can resolve the issue with a college scholarship.
But undocumented young people say a community group of undocumented students and friends called Immigrant Youth Forum, formed this year, could help them to cope.
Down about college prospects
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has seen a growing Latino population — they are now the largest minority at 14.1 percent of students, compared to about 11 percent in 2010-11.
Gloria Sanchez-Lane, a social worker at Chapel Hill High School, works closely with many of the school’s immigrant teens.
She said some of the students are undocumented, and many feel hopeless because they can’t qualify for in-state tuitions. She said many don’t have a high enough GPA to qualify for private college scholarships, making school too expensive.
Students often struggle psychologically as they grapple with the desperate outlook, she said.
“I see a lot of depression,” she said. “For our undocumented students, they are feeling frustrated.”
She said she sees students who contemplate suicide because they can’t see a way to move forward.
“Whenever you see anything about legislation coming up and the kids know about it you see an increase in depression,” Sanchez-Lane said. “I always tell them… your best way out of here is a higher GPA.”
But for some, those high grades can be tough to come by.
Regardless of their documentation, some students can’t speak English proficiently and struggle both academically and emotionally as a result.
Sanchez-Lane said English troubles can keep grades down, and Jose Nambo, who coordinates the district’s English as a Second Language program, said English problems could also make some students reserved.
“Maybe you start to shy away from social situations,” he said.
Sanchez-Lane said a fear of deportation is another weight on undocumented students’ psyches. She says she hears students talk about deported family and friends.
“They are very aware of when this is happening and even the fear that this is happening,” she said.
Support in the face of doubt
Chapel Hill High School graduate Dora Hernandez said although her undocumented status has kept her out of college so far, she has found local resources to provide her with moral support and keep her dream of college alive.
She said when she struggled with depression about her future in high school, counselors and a teacher helped her realize she can one day go to college.
Sanchez-Lane said part of her job is to help undocumented students apply for financial aid at private colleges, which they can qualify for. She also helps them access scholarships and decide what steps to pursue to get into schools that they can afford.
Sometimes, as in Hernandez’ case, that means working to raise money and aiming for a technical or community college to start off.
Sanchez-Lane said she also provides moral support to students who are handling psychological fallout from their immigration status.
And though the district has no system-wide support system for immigrant youth, students from Carrboro High School have recently organized Immigrant Youth Forum to support undocumented young people.
The group organized this year with the help of N.C. DREAM Team. It includes Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools students and other young residents and meets on Wednesdays.
The forum works for immigrant advocacy, but leaders say that it also lets its members know that they face common challenges.
“It shows there’s a lot more people going through it than you think,” Hernandez said.
And Vicente said he and others will need peer support. Reforms that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and possibly gain U.S. citizenship have stalled as opponents worry the changes reward illegal immigration.
“When I graduate in 2015, I won’t be able to use my degree,” he said. “We’re stronger when we’re vocal.”
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