Graciela:  Dreaming of College Success

When Graciela read her letter of congratulations from the University of Washington, she felt her heart soar. She’d been accepted into an American university, a dream born more than a decade earlier when she and her parents came to the U.S. from Venezuela. Quickly, though, reality crashed through her elation—she had no way to pay for college.

As a Dreamer—a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—Graciela could study in the U.S., but she wasn’t eligible for the federal financial aid that made college possible for other low-income students. Without financial aid, getting through college seemed unlikely. Just getting enrolled was a struggle, because the family could barely cover the $250 advising fee for incoming freshman. “My mom cleaned hotel rooms and my dad supervised a parking lot. We only had enough for the essentials,” Graciela said.

The puzzle of paying for college as an undocumented student was one Graciela had been trying to solve for years. In high school, she’d ask anyone who would listen for advice.

“Various advisors kept asking me why I hadn’t filled out my FAFSA for financial aid,” she said. “I would tell them ‘I can’t do that. I’m undocumented. How can you help me?’” Instead of help, she’d been met with confusion and blank stares. People didn’t even seem to realize that undocumented students made it to college, she said.

Graciela did make it to college, managing to cover her first tuition payment by juggling two jobs and accepting the $500 her parents had saved up. Living on campus was not financially feasible, so she commuted two hours daily, toting a barely functional laptop and determination. Graciela wasn’t giving up, but her future wasn’t certain. She knew she needed more support if she wanted to make it to graduation.

Halfway through her first year in college, she learned about the Leadership 1000 Scholarship from College Success Foundation. It seemed too good to be true: a scholarship open to underserved and undocumented students, one that could make the difference in her own college success. She applied and waited.

Months passed, and once again, she came home to a fateful envelope waiting in the mail. Again, she read “Congratulations,” but this time, there was no crushing worry alongside her joy. This letter offered more than admission to a university. It offered a chance to thrive there.

As a CSF L1000 Scholar, Graciela could quit her second job and move closer to campus. She replaced her ancient laptop with a newer model and swapped her two-hour commute for a short walk to class. Because she no longer had to worry about pulling a second shift at work to cover the cost of books, she could spend more time studying. Soon, she was earning better grades along with a spot on the Dean’s List. “The L1000 Scholarship changed my life as a college student. Applying was the best decision I’ve made,” Graciela said.

Less financial stress meant Graciela could focus on her professional goals: a career in political advocacy. She interned for Senator Maria Cantwell in spring 2016, wearing a suit she purchased with help from CSF, and graduated from the UW with a degree in political science that December. She traveled to Washington DC in November 2017 to help fight for the DREAM Act to help other undocumented students whose futures are uncertain. “I decided to lead the fight for change so that other students in similar situations won’t face uphill battles.”

But even uphill battles can be won with the right support, she said. “CSF champions the underserved and became like a family to me. Our CSF family will continue to grow."

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