For immigrant youth, the path to college is rarely smooth

Lack of documentation is the biggest hurdle to college success facing students from other countries.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Sitting at a table in the cafeteria at the Community College of Philadelphia, Cheick Kante makes no effort to hide his frustration.

"Sometimes I wish I’d never come here," says Kante, 22, a towering man who is studying computer information systems at CCP. "I never knew it would be like this."

A few hours later and a brisk walk away, Mohamed Kakay is a study in confidence as he chats in Starbucks at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is a graduate student in global studies. "I’ve had to work twice as hard," says Kakay, also 22. "But the resources are there for immigrant students."

Kante, a native of Mali who emigrated five years ago with a dream of playing college football, is undocumented and struggling.

Kakay, who is from Sierra Leone, came to the United States in 2002, joining an uncle who was soon able to get him a green card. For him, this unlocked the door to scholarships, financial aid, and lower tuition.

These benefits are denied to students like Kante, who graduated from Bartram High School but has since worked in restaurants or as a truck loader while trying to make it through CCP. "Sometimes they use you," because of the lack of a green card, Kante says. "You load two trucks and they pay you for one."

Students, counselors, and immigration activists say that lack of documentation is the biggest hurdle faced by students from other countries and is likely to remain so unless a so-called "DREAM Act" is passed on the state or federal level that could increase access to financial assistance and lower tuitions.

They say, however, that lack of documentation is hardly the only issue. They also cite language and cultural issues and difficulty negotiating a sometimes bewildering landscape of educational choices.

"When you have an accent, you’re always made fun of," says Kakay, a graduate of Pepper Middle School, University City High School, and Widener University.

Need for support

Wei Chen, a 20-year-old from Fujian province, China, made citywide headlines in 2010 by leading a boycott by Asian students at South Philadelphia High School protesting violent attacks and ongoing abuse by other students.

Wei now works as an organizer for Asian Americans United and attends English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at CCP to prepare him for the regular curriculum in subjects like political science. He says the atmosphere in high school definitely slowed his progress learning English: "I couldn’t pay attention to my school work."

Like many immigrant students, he has found his path smoothed by the good fortune of finding the right mentors and counselors. In particular, he cites Judith Reitzes, an ESL specialist in CCP’s learning lab. "Every time I say, ‘It’s so hard,’" he says, "she says, ‘You can improve.’"

John Bernard, an ESL and international student counselor at CCP, says that "culture is the essential point" and that ESL classes, which blend students from different backgrounds, also help students adjust.

"It’s very hard to navigate the system when you don’t speak the language well," says Cathey White, who manages the Philadelphia Education Fund’s College Access Center at the Gallery mall. "It’s not being addressed by the [high school] counselors."

White says that many immigrant students write English better than they speak it, so she often communicates that way even if they are sitting right next to her.

In general, White says, the students she sees – whether native or immigrant – "don’t have a clue as to where to start."

Miguel Andrade, youth organizer for the Latino community group JUNTOS, says that ignorance about college educational opportunity is widespread, with many undocumented students mistakenly believing that they are actually barred from attending college.

"Lack of information translates into lack of drive," says Andrade. "Some students drop out because of ignorance. Once they see they can [attend college], most of them want to do it."

Andrade says his group had met with Pedro Ramos, chair of the School Reform Commission, to discuss improving high school counseling services for immigrant students and would be reaching out to high school principals. Ramos says he is concerned about the issue and agreed to work with the schools to ensure that "we’re doing all we can to disseminate correct information."

Kante says he wishes this had happened with him. He says that while Bartram High School was delighted to use his talents as a defensive end, no one told him how tough it would be to get a football scholarship anywhere. "They gave up on me," he says.

Financial barrier

What no amount of counseling can do, though, is change the Pennsylvania law that allows only legal residents of a county to get the "local" tuition rate at state-supported schools: in CCP’s case, $500 per credit. Residents who live elsewhere in the state pay $1,000 and all others – including undocumented students – are charged the full rate of $1,500. And they are also ineligible for federal grants or loans.

But even documented students and their families struggle, says Darren Spielman, executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, because "They’re usually not in a position to take on a lot of debt." Wei Chen’s father, for example, drove a "Chinatown bus" for many years before bringing his family over.

For documented students, the fund provides some scholarship aid. Kakay says that without help from them and Philadelphia Futures, another group that assists low-income students, he would never have been able to earn an undergraduate degree from Widener.

The fund provides advice to undocumented students but not financial aid, because it tries to maximize available dollars by having students apply for federal aid first, and that is available only to U.S. citizens.

Cesar Marroquín, an organizer with DreamActivist Pennsylvania, says that a few schools, including Bryn Mawr College, Eastern University, and the University of Pennsylvania, have given financial aid to some undocumented students but that "a lot of them don’t graduate with high GPAs."

He himself attended Montgomery County Community College and dropped out for lack of resources, but says he is hopeful of going back to school.

Marroquín and other immigrant students say that despite the obstacles, motivation to stay and succeed is powerful.

Despite his frustration, Kante agrees: "I’d really like to stay and make a life here."