By Ramon Garibaldo-Velez
Ernesto “Che” Guevara, that black-bearded dreamer featured on the walls of virtually every college dorm, once said, “Knowledge shall make us free.”
What does freedom mean?
For an undocumented student, freedom means living without fear of being ripped away from his home. Freedom means not having to be scared every time she sees the red and blue lights of a police car blinking. Freedom also means not having to be afraid of the future.
There is a not-so-well-known problem that lies on the center of the immigration debate. Our undocumented youth are used to hearing, You can’t. You cannot drive. You can’t get a job. You can’t live here. The harshest can’t I’ve ever heard is You cannot go to college.
I arrived to this country two years ago with a tourist visa that was to expire six months later. Soon, I discovered that, like every other undocumented student, I did not have the same rights or opportunities that my classmates had. I found myself having to struggle against a culture that was new to me, using a language I barely had knowledge of. One day, when talking to my dad — a blue-collar, Spanish-speaking worker — about my possibilities of going to college, he simply told me, “If you want to go to college, you will have to pay for it yourself.”
At the end of my junior year, I had no resources and no idea of what to do in order to get into college. I looked for advice in the Mexican embassy, where a woman from the health department told me that the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte had recently started an initiative to help students that, like me, thought themselves hopelessly alone in the pursuit of a college education. Two days later, I attended my first College Access Para Todos meeting. After 30 minutes of counseling with two volunteers, I was on track with everything I needed to do to go to college. One minute after that, I decided to join the group.
College Access Para Todos exists to address the large amount of can’ts to which undocumented students are exposed. This is how the process goes: a student (usually a senior) arrives by recommendation from either his/her ESL teacher or one of the Hispanic newspapers that have so gladly agreed to promote us. The student says, “I didn’t know I could go to college” and we yell at the student for a little bit. We teach him/her how to register for the SAT/ACT and start tutoring him/her. We teach him/her how to look for good scholarships and apply for them. He/she gets accepted into a couple of colleges with a decent amount of financial aid. We celebrate.
In the time I’ve been working with College Access Para Todos, I have seen cases that make one question the quality of the educational system in relation to undocumented youth. It is not uncommon to receive students with a 4.0 grade point average who were unable to get into college on time because of a counselor’s misinformation. When asked the question “What are you good at?,” the most common answer the students give is “nothing.” Ironically, those who answer “nothing” end up being the ones displaying the most advanced reasoning during the SAT prep sessions and essay-writing workshops.
College Access Para Todos does not simply provide aid for the college-application process. What College Access Para Todos tries to achieve is social change. We do this through informative sessions with school counselors, college fairs, and even informal conversations on the backstage of the Latin American Festival. Everything goes towards making undocumented students stop being afraid of their futures and realize that with enough effort and 500-word essays, they can reach their goals.
Real change can only come from a free, educated population. With College Access Para Todos, we provide all the knowledge needed to break the chains of fear and uncertainty. We build social change, one student at a time.
Ramon Garibaldo-Valdez is a high school senior at Queen’s Grant High School. He is also a journalism aficionado and a volunteer at the Latin American Coalition.