100 percent of recipients graduate, pursue professions
By Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
For 17 years, unauthorized immigrant students (students who are in the U.S. without documentation) have been both contributors and recipients at Fresno Pacific University (FPU), the Mennonite Brethren university in Fresno, Calif.
As contributors, they have served as campus leaders in Bible studies and spiritual mentoring, student government and academic achievement. On the receiving side, they have been supported through the university’s Samaritan Scholarship and other programs aimed to ensure the success of students from low-income households.
The story of one outstanding student applying for admission to the university catalyzed the establishment of the Samaritan Scholarship 17 years ago. The applicant, a high school senior from Central California, was valedictorian of his graduating class with a 4.1 grade point average. Although he was interested in FPU and clearly would be an outstanding recruit, his scholarship package fell short of what he would need to enroll. The big missing piece was the state’s Cal Grant, funding that is a significant portion of many FPU students’ financial aid package. Because this student was undocumented, he didn’t qualify for the Cal Grant.
“We saw this exceptional student and said, ‘This is the kind of student that fits our mission to serve the region and the Valley,’” says John Endicott, FPU’s vice president for enrollment. In response, the university created the Samaritan Scholarship for undocumented students.
High standards, stiff competition
The four-county area that surrounds the university is home to an estimated 167,000 unauthorized immigrants (Migration Policy Institute), many of whom were brought to the United States as young children. From 2001 to 2010, FPU’s Samaritan Scholarship was the lifeline that each year made Christian higher education at FPU a possibility for just one or two exceptional new students from this population.
In 2010 the state of California passed Assembly Bill 131, making the Cal Grant available to qualifying undocumented students. Now the annual $200,000 budgeted for the Samaritan Scholarship (1.5 percent of the university’s institutional aid) helps about 25 immigrant students each year.
Standards for these scholarships remain high, and competition is stiff. “Many of our Samaritan Scholars are still above 4.0 grade point average in high school, class presidents, exceptional musicians or athletes,” says Endicott. Last fall 30 students competed for the eight scholarships granted for this school year.
According to Endicott, Samaritan scholars have lived up to the high standards of that first recipient who went on to study medicine and is now working at a medical clinic in his home community. The 40 other graduates have gone on to careers in medicine, academia, public policy and many other fields. The students’ drive and determination, he says, is reflected in a phenomenal 100 percent graduation rate over the scholarship’s history.
Cindy Jurado Hernandez has worked with many Samaritan scholarship recipients in her role within the FPU Office of Spiritual Formation and now as interim director of the scholarship. She describes the typical Samaritan scholar as a person who graduates from high school near the top of his or her class and aspires to pursue a professional career. Culturally they are American, and some learn about their undocumented status for the first time when they begin to complete the applications for university.
Special supports through the Samaritan Scholarship build on these students’ strengths, says Hernandez. Each Samaritan scholar is part of a cohort, a group that offers mentoring, service projects, leadership opportunities and participation in leadership and policy conferences.
Even with the scholarship funds, Samaritan scholars struggle financially. Their low-income families cannot provide much in financial help so they often have to work many hours while keeping up with their studies. One recent graduate cleaned houses and picked strawberries in order to finance an internship semester in Washington, D.C., as part of her political science studies.
Grant helps FPU expand services
Assistance from FPU in the form of free use of computers, printers and copy machines at the campus Intercultural Learning Center is another way the university supports its students from immigrant families. The center, whose services are available to any FPU student, is part of a program called ALAS (Advancing Latino/Latina Academic Success).
Through a federal grant secured in 2015, the university established ALAS to encourage Hispanic and low-income students to enroll in and graduate from FPU. ALAS’s special supports and counseling ensure that first-generation college students create and follow an academic plan that allows them to graduate in four years.
Whether undocumented or citizens, students who are the first in their family to attend college need assistance navigating the unfamiliar and sometimes intimidating academic environment. So, in addition to technology resources, ALAS provides academic supervision, peer mentoring and career advising.
ALAS Director Gina Ponce de León is quick to point out that their program serves students without regard for their immigration status. “Helping you is our objective,” she says. “I believe the way of helping [undocumented] students is treating them as anybody else, because that’s what they are.”
Five years ago, the federal government recognized the unique situation of the undocumented young adults who had been brought as children to the U.S. They had been educated in U.S. schools and were ready to move on to become contributing members of the communities they had grown up in.
With the establishment of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama administration granted qualifying students who had arrived in the U.S before the age of 16 a protected status. The executive order allowed students who registered with the government to pursue their academic and career goals, laying aside concern that their lives would be disrupted by a visit from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Deportation fears distract students
The Trump administration has continued to uphold the DACA policy, though fears have risen at the new administration’s calls for more restrictive immigration policies and more aggressive deportation of the undocumented. In the early months of the new administration, a few DACA students in other parts of the country have been detained by ICE.
Hernandez reports that concern about the possible deportation of family members who don’t have special protections distracts students from their academic pursuits. Two of FPU’s Samaritan scholars have taken a leave of absence, partially because of the political environment. “We have assured our students that there are allies and advocates for them on campus. Our priority is to ensure they stay in school and are successful,” she says.
Emotional support from FPU faculty and staff is vital to enable students to remain focused on their academic goals in a time of uncertainty. Hernandez checks in with them weekly.
Endicott recalls a recent conversation with a Samaritan scholar who is a student leader and is employed on campus. “I asked, ‘How are you doing?’ and she just started to cry. This fear is so palpable and huge.”
The experience takes Endicott back to the meaning of the name of FPU’s scholarship—The Samaritan Scholarship. “This is the Samaritan story of who is our neighbor and how do we love them?”
Loving Samaritan Scholars at FPU means coming alongside to help them pursue their life goals, explains Ponce de León. “As a Christian university, we’re not looking at you as if you were a foreigner, someone who doesn’t belong. I respect you for who you are and expect you to be successful.”
PHOTO: In addition to providing facilities and services to help ALAS students to flourish academically, the ALAS Intercultural Learning Center hosts a wide range of social activities, like this pizza party. Photo credit: FPU