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Big Idea: 'I did it all on my own': Calif. undocumented students get first grants

At the beginning of 2013, the second part of the California Dream Act took effect, allowing undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition to apply for state-funded financial aid. This fall, 7,218 undocumented students in California have received Cal Grants from the state totaling $31 million. NBC's Katy Tur Reports.

By Julia Deng and Steven Louie, NBC News

For the first time in California's history, citizenship is not a prerequisite for state-funded financial aid. Undocumented students in California became eligible for public funding beginning this year, following the passage of Assembly Bill 131 in 2011. It functions as the second half of the California Dream Act and opens the door for undocumented students to receive Cal Grants, Chafee Grants, community college fee waivers and other state institutional grants this fall.

Opponents call this an “open-ended entitlement.” These critics say the bill will incentivize more undocumented minors and their parents to come to the U.S. illegally. Others argue an influx of undocumented students receiving state aid at California's public colleges and universities will put more strain on the state's coffers. But that controversy has not stemmed the flow of financial aid applications.

More than 29,000 undocumented students (both incoming college freshmen and first-year transfers from community colleges) submitted the new California Dream Act Application this year. Of those, 7,218 were awarded Cal Grants for the 2013-2014 school year. Learn more about four of those recipients below.

Angelica Vargas
University of California, Berkeley 

Angelica Vargas

Angelica Vargas, 18, maintained a 4.0 GPA through all of middle school and high school, but almost gave up on her dream of attending the University of California, Berkeley because she was undocumented.

Vargas came to the United States with her parents, factory workers from Mexico, as a 13-month-old. Even though she "grew up feeling American, wearing the same clothes, speaking the same language, watching the same cartoons, saying the same pledge of allegiance," she missed out on the typical American high school experience.

"When friends would ask me why I wasn't driving, I would lie and say I was afraid even though I was yearning to be behind the wheel," said Vargas. "I also backed out of school trips to Spain and our graduation trip to Hawaii because I knew I couldn't go near an airport."

The biggest challenge came when she began applying to colleges. Vargas couldn't apply to many scholarships and financial aid programs, and had to rely on fee waivers to take her standardized tests and AP exams. She said she "cried hysterically and jumped for joy at the same time" when she found out that she had been awarded a Cal Grant. The $12,000 award money -- the highest possible amount a student can earn -- will fund her education at UC Berkeley, where Vargas plans to major in psychology or education.

"I want to be a doctor or a counselor or a principal in an elementary school, so I can give back to the community that supported me,” she said. 

Gabriela Sandoval
California State University, Northridge 

Gabriela Sandoval, 18, made it through the ups and downs of high school on her own, without parents or documents.

Gabriela Sandoval

The Monroe High School senior has lived apart from her mother, a housekeeper who lives with the family she works for, since moving to the United States from El Salvador in 2008. 

"It was especially hard being on my own because I thought being undocumented would hold me back from college," said Sandoval. "But I did it all on my own. I didn't have my mom filling out my college applications or helping me apply for the Cal Grant. It was all on me."

This fall, she will attend California State University, Northridge as a Cal Grant recipient. Her mother may not have had a daily presence in her life, but Sandoval still considers her a source of inspiration. She pushed herself to excel academically because she looks forward to the day she'll be successful enough to support them both.

“That was where I got the strength to pursue my education,” said Sandoval. "I just want that mom-and-daughter experience that I didn't get to have."

She also wants other teenagers to have the kind of support network she found through teachers, advisers and mentors at school. Sandoval plans to major in psychology and one day work at a juvenile hall.

"I want to help people who don't have support from their parents," she said. 

Grace Seo
University of California, Berkeley

Grace Seo, 21, chose community college and put her dreams on hold for two years -- after her parents left South Korea and put their lives on hold for a decade.

Grace Seo

"They came to the United States to study when I was 11, but then they saw the potential in investing in me," said Seo. "So now, instead of my parents studying, I'm getting an education and they're working to support me."

Still, the money they made wasn't enough to cover tuition at a four-year university; and Seo's status as an undocumented student meant she didn't qualify for most grants and scholarships when she graduated from high school in 2010. This was a tough reality for her to face, after growing up believing anything is possible "as long as you work hard." She worked harder than most of her peers, but in the end, going to one of her top-choice colleges simply wasn't possible.

"There was just no way to afford it," said Seo. "I get really bitter sometimes. I worked so hard to be here, and to think that I can't be here because of my financial situation kind of breaks my heart."

It was even harder on her parents, who encouraged her to apply to competitive schools and promised they would "do whatever it takes to cover tuition." They researched every possible loan option, but ultimately enrolled Seo a local community college. She didn't lose her drive and, with the help of a Cal Grant, was able to transfer to Berkeley this year.

"If anything, I think [undocumented students] work harder -- we have a lot to contribute," she said. 

Rossmeri Ramirez
California State University, Sacramento 

Rossmeri Ramirez

Rossmeri Ramirez, 17, “felt like one in a million” as she struggled through the college application process as an undocumented student. During her senior year at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, she found herself looking for answers to questions she didn’t quite know how to ask: “How do we apply to college? How do we get financial aid? Do we need different paperwork? What options do we have?”
Ramirez found the guidance she needed through her school's Dream Club, a support group for immigrant students, but that wasn’t the first time she was made painfully aware of her situation as a part of that “we.”
“I always knew I was undocumented,” said Ramirez. “It really hit me when I applied for my first job and got denied because I didn’t have a social [security card]. Just one little piece of paper proving you're American made the whole difference.”

Although Ramirez has lived in the United States for 13 years and "feels completely American," not having that "one little piece of paper" also prevented her from accepting internships, getting a driver's license and going to her dream college. She crossed the University of Chicago off her list and "didn't even bother applying" because she knew she wouldn't qualify for financial aid from the federal government.

"I was pretty determined and had the grades," she said. "I fell in love with UChicago and it was always a goal of mine to go to there. But when it came down to it, I had to be realistic. I ruled out all out-of-state schools because I knew I wouldn't get good funding."

Ramirez didn't know if she would be able to go to any four-year university -- even one in California. Relief came in the form of state funding when she discovered she had been awarded a Cal Grant. She will attend California State University, Sacramento this fall, where she plans to major in Political Science and carve out a career in immigration policy reform -- a path she "couldn't have chosen" without the California Dream Act.

"My dreams are coming true and my goals are finally coming together," she said.