Academic future uncertain for undocumented Blazer

Dec. 31, 1969, 7 p.m. | By Elena Chung | 51 years ago

A phone in one hand and a clicking mouse in the other, senior Denise Sylla taps her foot and scans FastWeb, a scholarship search web site, as she waits on hold with admissions officers from Wellesley College at the computer in the Student Government Association (SGA) office during lunch on April 30.

Like many seniors, Sylla is looking for money to pay for her college education. However, unlike most seniors, she has an additional obstacle—her legal status. With an expired visiting visa, Sylla is one of 65,000 graduating undocumented immigrants who has lived in the U.S. for more than five years, according to The Urban Institute.

In 1996, an eight-year-old, French-speaking Sylla stepped off a plane and found herself in a new world after growing up in the Ivory Coast. "I came by myself and did not speak a word of English," she says.

Sylla's homeland had very few opportunities in comparison to the U.S., especially for motivated children. "There was no civil system, and the school systems were failing," she says. "There was no future for young people who wanted to move on in the world."

With her visiting visa expired, Sylla now faces problems with going to college because she cannot receive federal money. "I have to look for outside aid," she says. "And that's very hard."

According to Jill Rauh, coordinator of the Central American Resource Center, Sylla's situation is unfair. "The government recognizes the right to education for everyone, and undocumented children can enroll in public school," she says. "But they can't move on to go to college."

Sylla realized in ninth grade that her lack of documentation would create many obstacles. "I realized the magnitude and scope of what it meant to be illegal, especially for college," she says.

Current legislation like the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in the Senate and the Student Adjustment Act in the House might assist undocumented students by providing in-state tuition and other benefits, says Jon Estralla, a senior policy associate at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Such federal laws would help Blazers like Sylla continue on to their dream school—a possibility still out of reach for them now. "Many schools would have accepted me if it had been feasible [that] I could pay. I received letters from Barnard [College] saying that because of my financial and legal status, they were unable to accept me," says Sylla.

In May 2003, Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr. vetoed a similar version of the DREAM Act for the state of Maryland. Thus, even as a high-achieving student, student body president, active gymnast and diver, Sylla still may not be able to study at her dream university because of her legal status, she says. "I've worked my butt off in Blair, and other kids who have lower grades can go to [college]. But I can't because the prices are astronomical!" she exclaims.

As the school year winds down, Sylla constantly worries about her future. For now, she plans to attend Montgomery College Honors and transfer to another college if she renews her visa. "I didn't plan this, but you got to take what you got. I'm not a terrorist; I just want to work hard," she says, frustrated. "And I can't even do that."

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Elena Chung. After several failed attempts to start a school newspaper in elementary school, Elena Chung, a senior, has finally fulfilled a lifelong goal to write for a paper. When she's not hunting down sources or finishing loads of work, she enjoys taking photos, cooking, reading, watching … More »

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