As University of Connecticut officials plan to increase in-state tuition by more than $3,000 over the next four years, a prospect that does not bode well for many aspiring students, 21-year-old Alejandro Velasquez watches with anticipation as he knows it creates yet another obstacle he must overcome to continue his education.
As an undocumented immigrant, Velasquez, a native of Colombia who came to Norwalk 16 years ago, must already overcome significant financial barriers to achieve his dream of studying botany at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Tuition at the state flagship campus is expected to top $11,000 next year and will continue climbing by about $700 annually.
Although Velasquez and some other so-called “dreamers” in Connecticut qualify for the lower in-state tuition at public colleges, they generally are not eligible for the institutional aid that often makes higher education feasible for lower income families.
Without this option, higher education costs are virtually insurmountable for many immigrant families who are already straining to get by with diminished earning capabilities because of their immigration status and, in many cases, language barriers.
“My family works hard so I can get an education,” Velasquez said. His father has a landscaping business and his mother is a house cleaner, he said, adding “they never take a break.
Velasquez pitches in by working at an Italian restaurant and helping at his father’s landscaping company. In the winter, this means tackling snow removal to bring in some income during the slow season. Last year, the snowfall was abundant and Velasquez remembers working 16 hours straight after one storm.
In addition, Velasquez said that because he is an undocumented immigrant there are limits on the kinds of work he can do. He just turned 21 last month and does have a driver’s license and work permits.
Recently, Velasquez received a financial boost from an organization comprised of immigrants like himself who understand what he is up against. it is the Connecticut Students for a DREAM, which awarded $1,500 scholarships to the Norwalk resident and to Joseline Tlacomulco, of New Haven, who is attending UConn.
This scholarship was created this year to help undocumented students that are pursuing higher education but have limited financial help due to their immigration status. Money was generated through a series of fundraising activities.
This year the tuition for in-state students is $10,524 at the state’s flagship university, or less than a third of the $32,066 out-of state students are asked to shell out. The current proposal from UConn officials would increase these charges respectively to $13,799 and $36,466 for the 2019-20 academic year.
“It is very difficult for undocumented students,” said Lucas Codognolla, the organization’s lead coordinator, adding that the proposed tuition increases will exacerbate this problem. He added that the organization is campaigning to get the financial aid restriction lifted.
CT Students for a Dream hopes to provide scholarships annually and is currently planning more fundraising events for that purpose. Information is available at www.ct4adream.org
This year’s scholarship recipients were chosen from more than 20 applications received from around the state. Applicants had to answer questions about how young people can be a benefit to the community and how their stories can help others.
Velasquez was an infant when his father came to this country by himself to visit his brother in Norwalk where there is a sizable Colombian community. Like many immigrants, he elected to stay, attracted by the economic opportunities that did not exist in Colombia, Velasquez said.
With the help of his brother, who is a citizen, Alejandro’s father was able to get work and bring over his wife, daughter and son. Later, he launched his own landscaping business.
Norwalk has a sizable Latino community, including many Colombians, making the transition easier for Velasquez, who was 5 when he came to this country. He said he learned English easily through his friends, but he also appreciated that many of his classmates also spoke Spanish.
He said he didn’t think much about being an undocumented student until he got to high school The two major handicaps that he has experienced due to this status was that he could not travel to other countries and that he can’t apply for institutional aid at the state schools. The latter forces many students to vie for whatever private scholarships are available or to seek loans, an option which can create a long-term burden.
After graduating from Brian McMahon High School in Norwalk, Velasquez commuted to the University at Connecticut branch in Stamford, where he was planning to major in economics. However, he became interested in plant life, partly due to becoming a vegetarian.
Velasquez plans to take the basic biology courses he will need at UConn locally at a less expensive community college. The switch to the flagship campus at Storrs is needed, he said, because that is only one of two schools in Connecticut that offer the botany major he is pursuing.
Velasquez shares the dream that a pathway to citizenship will open some day. He and millions of others who have come to the country with the hope of making it economically remain in a legal limbo while politicians squabble about what to do.
Velasquez also is hopeful that he will have an opportunity to study botany. “If I am lucky,” he said, “I will find the financial support to get to Storrs.”
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