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A promising gift

UC Berkeley received $1 million from a generous donor to fund scholarships for undocumented students: Will other donors follow suit?

Veronica Villafa├▒e

STORY TOOLS

Hundreds of thousands of undocumented students, known as Dreamers, dream about going to college. But high tuition costs make that dream a nightmare. A progressive California, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition since 2001, is now offering them a chance at a brighter future. The 2011 passage of the California Dream Act now allows them to receive private scholarships and access to state financial aid.

Champions of education, like UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, are inspiring positive change.  An advocate for disadvantaged children to gain access to higher education, he says when he learned about the travails of undocumented students attending the school, he had to find them help. “These are extraordinarily talented kids.  To get into Berkeley with all the challenges that entails, they’re deserving of our help.”  He arranged a dinner with members of the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.  They were so moved by the personal stories of the struggling students that they made a $1 million donation to fund scholarships for undocumented students at UC Berkeley. 

“The young people who will benefit from these scholarships have beaten the odds and have proven themselves as exceptional, hard-working students,” says Ira Hirschfield, president of the Haas, Jr. Fund, whose organization “supports initiatives and organizations that advance and protect fundamental rights and opportunities for all.”  The donation is expected to help about 100 students a year with annual grants of $4,000 to $6,000—welcome help, especially since they can’t apply for federal financial aid, like Pell Grants.

But not all were pleased at the gift.  Vitriolic and hateful comments were left on online stories about the donation. Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigrant Studies, immediately stated, “This foundation is valuing illegal immigrant students above American or legal immigrant students.” That’s an exaggerated statement. Although $1 million is a lot of money, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $718 million in grants and scholarships awarded to undergraduate students statewide by the University of California during the 2011-12 school year. “The way we see it at the Haas, Jr. Fund, supporting the ability of Dreamer students to get an education is not about favoring one group over another,” affirms Hirschfield. “It is simply about leveling the playing field for a group of young people who have proven themselves to be hard working, dedicated students,” and “for all people to have access to opportunities and equal chances at achieving success.”

For those who argue undocumented students are taking away scholarships from “rightful recipients,” that’s simply not so. This Haas, Jr. Fund gift was made strictly to help students whose legal status prevents them from getting financial assistance, so it’s not taking it away from anyone else. As Hirschfield points out, his organization and the Haas family hasn’t neglected other financially challenged students. They’ve supported many activities at the university over the years, also giving a $1.5 million grant to provide scholarships for students from families with low incomes.

It’s estimated that each year, roughly 20,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in California. Less than 2 percent apply to California State universities due to a variety of reasons, mostly a lack of financial means.
The scholarships are only part of what Birgeneau says is a comprehensive plan at UC Berkeley to address the unique challenges undocumented students face. He also supported the creation of the Dreamers Resource Center, a physical space where undocumented students can bond, get counseling, legal support services, a textbook lending library, funds for emergency needs and other resources. The center is made possible thanks to an additional gift of $300,000 from Elise Haas. The efforts at UC Berkeley are a model to be replicated. Other universities have contacted Birgeneau to learn how they can help their undocumented students.

The Haas, Jr. Fund has set an example. Since they announced their $1 million gift, two other families have donated $100,000 and $200,000 each to fund scholarships for undocumented students. The fund’s president is confident others will follow, because “our economy and our society all are better and richer when we roll up our sleeves and do the work that’s required to open doors to opportunity for people who have been shut out for too long.”

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