For New Jersey DACA Student, The Road To College Is Bumpier Than Expected

Jul 14, 2017
Originally published on July 14, 2017 6:22 am

This story is part of Kitchen Table Conversations, a series from NPR's National Desk that examines how Americans from all walks of life are moving forward from the presidential election.

Desiree Armas worked hard in high school. So when she graduated in June from Union County Magnet High School in New Jersey, Armas had the flair to prove it. She was decked out in medals and honor cords — braided ropes with tassels on the end, in bright red and gold, that represent her academic and extracurricular accomplishments during high school.

"I always admired the kids who wore a bunch of stuff on graduation," Armas says. "So that's why I think I was so excited for graduation, just to low-key show off everything I've done."

But there was one big difference between Desiree Armas and the rest of her graduating class: Armas and her parents are living in the country illegally. Armas is signed up for the DACA program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — which protects her from deportation. Still, her immigration status made applying to college more complicated than she expected.

Even the college counselor at her high school was overwhelmed.

"I like my counselor. I really do respect her and, yes, she tried her best," Armas says. "But I mean it's, like, the first time she ever had to deal with something like that. Having to consider my immigration status. And she just didn't know how to deal with that."

While her classmates were committing to colleges, Armas was still trying to figure out if she could afford college at all. In some states, DACA students are eligible for state aid. New Jersey isn't one of them. So while Armas was admitted to a couple of schools — including Rutgers, the state university — the schools weren't offering enough financial aid to make it work.

"It was extremely sad to see Desiree so defeated," says her mother, Olga Armas, through a translator. "And we felt guilty, because we brought her to this country."

Desiree Armas left Peru with her parents when she was 3 years old. They eventually settled in Elizabeth, N.J.

Part of the problem with Armas' college applications was confusion over how to fill out her federal financial aid form, because her parents don't have Social Security numbers. That's not unusual, says Nedia Morsy, an organizer at the nonprofit Make the Road New Jersey, which works with DACA students.

"There's an education and responsibility that they need to have more than other students," says Morsy. "They need to have an awareness of what monies are available to them, and how. And then plan college applications around that. So money comes first, and the dream school comes after."

Morsy helped Desiree Armas get her financial aid paperwork straightened out. And she knew about another school in New Jersey that Armas hadn't applied to: Saint Peter's University, a small private college in Jersey City.

"St. Peter's offered me a full ride," Armas says. "They even called me saying, your application is, like, one of the best we've seen all year. They invited me to their honors college and they were, like, really excited for me to go. And right off the bat I really liked St. Peters."

Desiree Armas got some other good news in June: DACA will continue, at least for now. So after years of not knowing where — or if — she was going to college, Armas says, it was a relief.

She felt like all her hard work was starting to pay off.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's check in now with a so-called DREAMer who we first met in January. Desiree Armas was applying to college, and she was worried about the future of DACA. That's the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals which protects her from deportation. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the road to college has been a little bumpier than she expected.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When Desiree Armas graduated from high school a few weeks ago, you might say she wore her accomplishments on her sleeve.

DESIREE ARMAS: So those are all the cords I wore. One of them is for National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society.

ROSE: Wow, there's a whole bunch of them.

D. ARMAS: Yeah. Yeah.

ROSE: We met a few days after graduation at her family's apartment in Elizabeth, N.J. Armas showed me her graduation robes and those cords. They look like braided ropes with tassels on the end in bright red and gold. They're supposed to represent her academic and extracurricular accomplishments during high school.

D. ARMAS: I always admired the kids who wore - had a bunch of stuff on graduation. So that's why I think I was so excited for graduation, just to, you know, like, low-key show off everything I've done.

ROSE: Because you're not - you don't strike me as, like, a flashy - a flashy person.

D. ARMAS: Yeah, I'm not - I'm really not. So this is, like, my subtle way of saying, this is what I did. And I don't even have to say anything.

ROSE: Armas worked hard at her magnet school. But there was one big difference between Desiree Armas and the other kids - her immigration status. Armas' parents overstayed their visas when she was just a kid. Now Armas is signed up for DACA. That protects her from deportation. But it made applying to college more complicated. Armas says even the college counselor at her high school was overwhelmed.

D. ARMAS: I like my counselor. I really do respect her. And yes, she tried her best. But, I mean, it's like the first time she ever had to deal with something like that, you know, having to consider my immigration status. And she just didn't know how to deal with that.

ROSE: While her classmates were committing to colleges, Armas was still trying to figure out if she could afford college at all. In some states DACA students are eligible for state aid, but New Jersey isn't one of them. So while Armas was admitted to a couple of schools, including the state university, the schools weren't offering enough financial aid to make it work. Her mother, Olga Armas, says it was scary.

OLGA ARMAS: (Through interpreter) It was extremely sad to see Desiree so defeated. And we felt guilty because we brought her to this country.

ROSE: Part of Desiree Armas' problem was confusion over how to fill out her federal financial aid form because her parents don't have Social Security numbers. Nedia Morsy is the youth organizer at Make the Road New Jersey, a nonprofit group. Morsy says she's seen this a lot because guidance counselors, even well-meaning ones, often don't understand what DACA students need.

NEDIA MORSY: There is an education and responsibility that they need to have more than other students. They need to have an awareness of what monies are available to them and how. And then plan college applications around that, right? So money comes first, and then the school, the dream school, comes after.

ROSE: Morsy helped Desiree Armas get her financial aid paperwork straightened out. And she knew about another school in New Jersey that Armas hadn't applied to before, St. Peter's University, a small private college in Jersey City near where she lives.

D. ARMAS: St. Peter's offered me a full ride. They even called me saying your application is, like, one of the best we've seen all year. They invited me to their honors college and they were, like, really excited for me to go. And right off the bat I really liked St. Peter's.

ROSE: Desiree Armas got some other good news in June. DACA will continue, at least for now. So after years of not knowing where or if she was going to college, Armas says it was a relief. It felt like all her hard work is starting to pay off. Joel Rose, NPR News, Elizabeth, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.