As an undergraduate in July 2015, Polanco created a social justice food truck business called So Good Pupusas, through which she sells traditional pupusas to raise funds for scholarships given to undocumented college students.
Polanco created the company because she recognized the privilege she had as a documented citizen of the U.S. who received scholarships for her college education. She wanted to help students with undocumented status attend college so that they could experience the same liberation from education that she herself had experienced.
In December 2016, Polanco created a non-profit organizationassociated with her business So Good Pupusascalled Pupusas for Education. Polanco manages the business while a team of students at UNC run Pupusas for Education.
“The business strives to be a force for good, and the non-profit works to close the opportunity gap for undocumented students,” Polanco said in an email interview.
A key component of the non-profit organization is the work it does for its scholars who, to be eligible for consideration, must be high school seniors with either undocumented or DACA legal status who have applied or been accepted to a two- or four-year higher education institution.
Many undocumented Pupusa scholars would be expected to pay out-of-state tuition at schools like UNC, whether or not they reside in the state of their university.
“We want to help them overcome the systemic barriers they encounter so that they can reach their full potential and give back to their community,” said Marcella Pansini, a junior majoring in business administration and public policy currently serves as the executive director of Pupusas for Education.
The non-profit organization provides various resources for its scholars, including financial aid, personal guidance and professional workshops.
In early November, the organization hosted the Undocumented Youth Empowerment Summit in the Campus Y, where they helped high school juniors and seniors discover what college is like, what challenges they should expect while pursuing higher education and how to best stay true to their culture and heritage.
Assistant Executive Director Vivian Karamitros is a sophomore majoring in statistics and analytics and computer science. Karamitros said the organization's events are meant to provide students with resources about how to do well in higher education.
“We are hoping to give them the resources and the connections that they need to succeed,” Karamitros said. “... It’s also about helping them find their identity and making sure that the Imposter Syndrome doesn’t become something that they experience when they go to college.”
Karamitros also said that a scholarship retreat is hosted for all Pupusa scholars so that they have an opportunity to bond, interact and network with each other once selected.
To help these students afford their education, the organization offers three scholarships that students can apply for during their senior year of high school. These include the Pupusas for Education scholarship, a renewable $1,000 scholarship available to two students, and gap year grants. So Good Pupusas has committed $14,000 toward this scholarship, which is currently in its pilot year.
“We are a last dollar scholarship,” Pansini said about the Pupusas for Education scholarship. “We are a gap scholarship. We don’t provide a lot of money in terms of finances, but we provide them with as many resources as we can. We are hoping to help them to close the gap. For example, if someone submits an application, saying they need about $5,000 in order to attend the University, we will provide them with $1,000 of that $5,000.”
In partnership with Scholars Latino Initiative Virginia, the organization also offers a new scholarship to four students who participated in the SLI VA program in high school. This scholarship offers amounts ranging from $1,000 to $6,000 and is possible thanks to a donation from former UNC professor Peter Kaufman.
Because of the association with So Good Pupusas, many people have mistakenly assumed that the scholarships offered are only available to those who identify as Hispanic and LatinX, but Pansini emphasized that the only requirement for students applying is that they be undocumented or DACAmented.
The scholarships are currently only available to high school seniors residing in Orange, Durham and Wake county, but Pansini said one of her personal goals is to expand the target audience of potential scholars beyond the Triangle region. She is also hoping to establish an emergency fund for scholars who may need help paying for legal counsel if they feared deportation or for home reparation costs after storms.
Once selected, scholars can attend any institution they’d like. Two Pupusa Scholars are currently at UNC.
Jatzyri Perez Garcia is one such first-year scholar majoring in neuroscience. With DACAmented legal status, Perez Garcia said she would not be able to attend UNC — let alone any other college — without the scholarship.
“Not only did they allow me to go to one of my dream schools, but they allowed me to continue my education like I wanted to,” Perez Garcia said.
She mentioned that the opportunity to be a Pupusa Scholar offers more than just financial support, but also support and guidance from the organization’s team.
“At the beginning, coming to UNC was kind of hectic, especially as a first-year. I had a lot of questions, so I quickly texted Marcella and asked her if there was anyone who could help me out or who I could ask questions to,” Perez Garcia said. “She responded like ‘Oh, you can just ask me. I can help you directly.’ She was able to answer my questions and that helped me a lot.”
Karamitros said that while working in Pupusas for Education she has learned that focusing on its target audience is the most important aspect of the organization’s work.
“We are trying to specifically target this group that has a lot of times been overlooked or pushed to the wayside,” Pansini said. “We want to make sure that they are seen, accounted for and feel as though they have someone who is on their side.”