Arlington, VA

In front of friends, families and admirers, four Arlington students received a chance to dream Thursday night.

In a ceremony at the Arlington Public Schools Education Center on N. Quincy Street, Hareth Andrade and Antonella Rodriguez-Cossio from Washington-Lee High School, Henry Mejia from Yorktown High School and Jose Vasquez from Arlington Mill High School Continuation Program received Dream Scholarships to help fund their college educations.

Although countless high school students enjoy grants and awards around this time of year, the Dream Scholarship is reserved for undocumented students — children born abroad who are not U.S. citizens or legal residents.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools every year, but they cannot receive federal financial aid and are ineligible for in-state tuition in Virginia. That renders college an expensive, unattainable goal for many.

While activists around the country fight for undocumented students’ rights at the federal level, others, like Arlington School Board Member Dr. Emma Violand-Sanchez, are trying to make a difference on a local level. Violand-Sanchez founded and chairs Dream Project, Inc., which awards the scholarships.

While speaking at Thursday’s event, Dr. Violand-Sanchez said that many undocumented students feel discouraged by the restrictions against them and don’t know where to turn. She added that although school guidance counselors and other community members may want to help, they don’t always know the best means if they haven’t previously dealt with students in this situation. She hopes Dream Project, Inc. can bridge that gap.

The four students all described the personal motivators that kept them focused on their goals during difficult times. “I despised the idea of throwing away the opportunities my parents gave me when they brought me and my siblings to the United States,” said Meija, a valedictorian who’s heading to Bucknell University in the fall.

Pride and gratitude could be seen on the faces of all the scholarship recipients. They told their stories of arriving in America at young ages and the adversity they had to overcome to achieve their current levels of success. From working 12-hour waitress shifts every day to afford schooling, to arriving in this country without the support of parents who had to be left behind — all kept education in the forefront of their lives.

After sharing the story of how he worked to support his wife and young baby, learned English, and simultaneously attended high school classes, Vasquez summed up his gratitude with a simple statement.

“I won’t disappoint you,” he said.

Andrade and Rodriguez-Cossio echoed the sentiment.

“We will not stop here,” said Andrade. “We will work with the next generation of dreamers.”

“We are going to keep on fighting,” Rodriguez-Cossio promised. “All of us are fighters at heart.”

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