Mobile App Helps Undocumented Students Find Money for College

Posted By Monica Harvin on January 29, 2016 at 3:48 pm
Mobile App Helps Undocumented Students Find Money for College

Latina tech entrepreneur and DACA student, Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, is developing a mobile app to ensure undocumented students are not misinformed like she was about the opportunities that are out there if they want to go to college.

“Everybody wanted to know why I wasn’t going to go college. It was just too overwhelming to…just to hear the word ‘college’ because I knew I couldn’t go,” Sarahi tells GoodCall. At least, that’s what she believed after graduating from North Hollywood High School in Los Angeles as an undocumented student less than a decade ago. Sarahi was an outstanding student in high school, with a big list of extracurricular activities both on and off campus, and really good grades.

As a kid, she fully believed that if she did well in school and partook in extracurricular activities, then that’s all she’d need to go to college. That’s what she’d always been told at least. However, when graduation time approached, her teachers, counselors, and everyone around her began to tell her that she wouldn’t be eligible for merit-based scholarships to reward her academic achievements or have access to need-based financial aid as a low-income student. The reason: Sarahi was undocumented.

After graduation, Sarahi sought to escape the questions coming from her peers and everyone else, “Why aren’t you going to college?” She moved to northern California, but there, the same questions followed her, why wasn’t she going to college?

Misinformed about the opportunities for undocumented students

Sarahi tells GoodCall that, after she moved, a lady at her church asked her why she wasn’t going to college and Sarahi explained she was undocumented and unable to pay for college as an international student. The lady’s response, though, was different from everyone else’s she heard up to then.

“She told me, you’re mistaken, you could go to college, there’s a counselor at a community college here in Cupertino. He can help you. He helps undocumented students go to college all the time,” recounts Sarahi. She went to speak to him and worked that summer to save up money to enroll in the fall.

“That was the first time, I was like whoa, how come you knew about this and my teachers didn’t know this?” Living in a state like California where, actually, there were a lot more opportunities for undocumented students, in comparison to other states, Sarahi realized the sheer lack of information for undocumented students, coupled with misinformation coming from schools, family, and communities.

From that moment on, the whole experience of being misinformed about the opportunities that actually were available to her ignited in her a desire to make sure accurate information was available to everyone who needed it. She decided she wanted to make sure students who are undocumented know that there are, in fact, opportunities out there for them, and especially for those who are top students and involved in their communities and schools, like Sarahi was.

Becoming an undocumented Latina in tech

In 2013, Sarahi was one of 20 DREAMers in the nation chosen to participate in the DREAMers Hackathon. She recalls that that was the first time she was surrounded by so many inspiring people. “I learned what coding was and was inspired to create change, positive change with technology, in my community. And I knew it was possible from the results of that hackathon.”

Sarahi started a blog where she posted scholarship opportunities for low-income and undocumented students. “It’s difficult for low-income students, I know, but it’s even more difficult being low-income and undocumented because the resources [for college] are limited,” she tells GoodCall. Because of her blogging work, in 2014, she was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change. Later, after receiving DACA, she went to work with the Girl Scouts of America as a community organizer for the Environmental Science and Technology Program.

In 2014, she took part in the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge. She wanted to take the work she was doing with her blog and go mobile. For the challenge, she designed an app that would help undocumented students find and track scholarship opportunities available to them. Her idea won her first place, and she received $100,000 to build the Dreamers Roadmap app. She’s since been recognized as one of Forbes 30 under 30 for her work with Dreamers Roadmap.

“It’s still kind of shocking to me. It’s kind of unheard of [because] when I started this, I was undocumented. I was an undocumented Latina in tech,” shares Sarahi.

Asked about the obstacles she’s come up against, Sarahi says, “The first obstacle is being undocumented in this industry of tech, then being a Latina, and a woman in this industry – a lot of people think that it’s a joke, that you’re never going to make it, that it’s never going to happen.”

“It’s not very common to see Latinas in tech and not just that but in entrepreneurs. I’m very fortunate that I pursued my passion… It puts me in a place… where I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a Latina and I’m in tech. And, I’m serving my community, which is the most satisfying part for me…lifting the burden from students that are going to be in the same situation as I was when I graduated from high school,” she tells GoodCall.

How the Dreamers Roadmap mobile app works

Dreamers Roadmap is expected to launch in March of this year. Sarahi explains that there will be three ways to use the app. The first is to create an account with an email address. This way, students receive emails about upcoming and new scholarships. They also get push notifications to their phones and reminders of scholarship deadlines.

There’s also an explore feature for people who don’t want to create an account. “I was kind of pushed to share my story nationally, and then became comfortable sharing. But, the first time was really scary, so I identify with people being afraid of exposing information,” she says. The explore feature allows users to search the entire scholarship database without sharing any personal information. It also filters down the scholarships, based on questions like what state they live in, if they have DACA, and education level, to find the scholarships that best match. Sarahi explains that an explore search can be either for the person searching or for someone else, say, for instance, a school counselor helping an undocumented student.

The third feature of the app will allow users to crowdsource information on scholarships for undocumented students, essentially passing into the hands of students all across the country information on scholarship opportunities previously shared only by word-of-mouth. Sarahi explains that each scholarship tip they receive is verified before it’s submitted to the database, currently housing about 500 scholarships.

Owing, in large part, to the work of formerly undocumented students, like Sarahi, there are now more opportunities for undocumented students to go to college. Though, these opportunities are not evenly spread across the nation, with some states still requiring undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition. What’s more, even for students protected under DACA, in most states, financial aid remains out of reach. Add these realities to misinformation about whether or not undocumented students can get help to go to college, and it makes access to information like that provided by Dreamers Roadmap all the more important for students, schools, families, and communities.

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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