It’s high school graduation day at Cordova High School. For Leonardo Zavala, this was a journey. Ten years ago, as a 12-year-old boy, Zavala and his family moved to the United States from Yoro, Yoro Honduras. He didn’t speak English when he first came to Memphis. He enrolled in Memphis City Schools for seven years where he learned English and completed a general high school diploma like his classmates.
However, instead of looking forward to college, Zavala will start a full-time job. For Zavala who is an undocumented student, going to college seemed like an unattainable dream.
Zavala is just one example of many undocumented students in Memphis. It’s difficult to get a count of how many undocumented students are in Shelby County Schools because parents only need to provide proof of residency. Students do not have to be residents to attend school. As of September of 2015, SCS reported almost 14,000 Hispanic students enrolled in the school system, but it’s unclear how many of these students are undocumented.
However, unlike SCS, colleges and universities require more than proof of residency for scholarships, loans and grants.
“You know, you have to have your social security [number] for everything,” Zavala said. “And I knew that right off the bat, so that just kinda shut all of my dreams off.”
He played defense for his high school soccer team and was the team captain of the Robotics Club.
Zavala knew that he could receive a full-ride scholarship to many colleges because of his high school leadership positions. However, this label of being an “illegal” put an end to any idea of going to a university.
As the Latino community grows, more undocumented Latino students graduate from Tennessee high schools. After graduation, many Latino students want to go to college, just like Zavala.
In April of 2015, Tennessee state lawmakers responded to these Latino students by passing house bill 0675, better known as the “Tuition Equality Bill.” Under the law, a student must prove that they attended Tennessee public schools for at least three years right before graduating from high school.
Originally, Mark White, a republican congressman from Memphis, presented the bill meant for undocumented students. However, lawmakers amended the bill to include only documented immigrant students.
Even though this bill does not require universities to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, the University of Memphis decided to change the school policy. In 2014, President Brad Martin and Provost David Rudd chose to charge in-state tuition to undocumented students who lived in Tennessee for at least five years.
According to Steve McKellips, the University of Memphis vice provost of enrollment services, the documentation status of a student is irrelevant in the recruitment and admission phase of applying to colleges.
“There is no restriction on someone who is documented or otherwise,” McKellips said. “That’s not what we’re looking at.”
Applying for college is not what keeps undocumented students’ dreams from coming true, the problem is paying for classes. Undocumented students can’t apply for federally funded loans, grants or scholarships.
While this is the case for state-funded schools, private schools like Christian Brothers University, are able to use privately donated money to create programs that may help undocumented students.
According to Dr. Anne Kenworthy, vice president of enrollment at CBU, the Latino Student Success program, which provides scholarship money to undocumented students, started in the fall of 2014.
“This fall we had 55 freshmen Latino students enroll out of 312,” Kenworthy said. “Of those 55, 20 of them are in LSS. We’re seeing the interest from the Latino population expand, and it’s because they have a support system.”
Latino Memphis partnered with CBU to make college an attainable dream for undocumented Latino students. Over the last three years, of the 14,000 Hispanic students enrolled in Shelby County Schools, Latino Memphis helped more than 400 students prepare for college. Latino Memphis connects the students with CBU and provides an advisor for the LSS students.
However, this program is more than just a scholarship. In LSS, students pay $2,600 out-of-pocket for tuition the first year, but the costs gradually increase to $3,200 by their senior year. This is significantly lower than what students pay at the University of Memphis because as of now, they still have to pay in-state tuition which is $8,900.
According to Kenworthy, the students receive a scholarship, but they also have to accept the $5,000 loan included in the program. This loan has no interest, but instead of having ten years to pay it back, students have five years. They’re also required to pay $50 each month on the loan, immediately after starting classes.
“The best part to me is that the money that they repay goes back into a loan fund for this community,” Kenworthy said.
According to Kenworthy, academically, members of LSS keep good GPAs and are involved on campus.
“These students are working hard and paying for this,” Kenworthy said. “I mean most students don’t start paying back their loans while they’re currently enrolled.”
Bryan Nuñez is a sophomore, marketing student at CBU and was in the first class of LSS students. He moved to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico when he was three years old and graduated from Kirby High School.
He remembered his friends applying for scholarships and loans, but he knew he couldn’t.
“For me, college was a want more than a reality,” Nuñez said.
When Nuñez heard about the program at CBU, he decided to apply for it. He said that he always wanted to attend CBU, but the cost was too high. When they announced that he received the scholarship, Nuñez said he was shocked.
“I was taken-a-back,” Nuñez said. “It was more than a dream-come-true. It was kinda magical.”
This partnership between CBU and Latino Memphis is creating more opportunities and leveling the playing field for undocumented Latino students.
“My whole demeanor is completely different now from in high school,” Nuñez said. “It’s a problem for a lot of high school students because they get discouraged, but this [LSS program] is life changing.”