HARTFORD — Junior Sierra, a junior at Brien McMahon High School, stood before 75 activists, three TV cameras and a half dozen media outlets, grinning from behind a microphone.
“My name is Junior Sierra, and I am undocumented and unapologetic,” he began.
He proceeded to explain the ways in which his immigration status has stunted his educational opportunities—notably, he will not be eligible for need-based financial aid from any public college or university in Connecticut.
Sierra is part of Connecticut Students for a Dream (C4D), a grassroots organization comprised of students and activists that works to provide undocumented students with access to higher education. The Legislature passed The Connecticut DREAM Act in 2011, allowing undocumented Connecticut students to pay in-state tuition at public universities. But the law does not address the issue of financial aid.
Many undocumented students cannot afford to pay full in-state tuition, and because they do not possess social security numbers, they cannot apply for need-based aid from colleges and universities using the FAFSA.
“I’m tired of seeing students with so much potential drop out, or have to work three jobs, because they can’t afford higher education,” said Lucas Codognolla, the director of C4D. “The community is still faced with the issue of college affordability.”
C4D launched its “Afford to Dream” campaign at a high-energy press conference Thursday morning at the Center for Latino Progress overlooking downtown Hartford, in order to pressure the state’s Board of Regents of Higher Education to extend institutional need-based aid to undocumented students.
The organization had originally tried to push legislation [that would allow undocumented students access to institutional aid], but the bill stalled in committee, said C4D activist Kenneth Reveiz. Now, they are petitioning the Board of Regents, which controls the state’s universities and community colleges.
After the rally, students and activists drove to the Board of Regents office and submitted a rule-making petition requesting that public colleges and universities stop requiring students to provide their social security numbers to receive need-based aid from the institution. They also presented the BOR with over 2,000 petition signatures, including 15 state legislators, over 50 community organizations, over 50 educators and over 25 student clubs – a collection of signatures that took them two months to compile.
“We want to end discriminatory barriers that prevent high-achieving students from reaching their full potential,” Sierra said. “We fight as a community.”
Though individual members of the Board of Regents have been supportive of C4D’s proposal, they have not taken action as a body, according to C4D Policy Coordinator and Founder Camila Bortolleto. The organization hopes to garner enough attention to encourage the Board to approve it. It has 30 days to make a decision.
Reveiz said he is hopeful that the University of Connecticut’s separate Board of Trustees will follow suit.
According to the Board, 15 percent of the tuition students pay goes toward financial aid for other students. Thus, undocumented students pay into the financial aid fund but cannot benefit from it, said Irina Anta LAW ’15, who works at the law school’s Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, who has worked with C4D since 2012.
Seventy-five activists, members of the press, local high school students and DREAMers were in attendance, chanting and cheering after every speaker.
“My name is Faye Philip, and I am undocumented and unafraid,” another activist began as she approached the podium. Philip, who is now 25, had to drop out of Norwalk Community College because she could not apply for financial aid.
She said going through high school knowing she could not afford college was very discouraging, citing the fact that one in six undocumented students drop out of high school.
She said that if Afford to Dream is successful, she could finally return to school.
“I was the first to graduate high school in my family, and I can and will be the first to graduate college,” she said. “Board of Regents: You have the ability to allow us to spread our wings and fly. Show us that dreaming is worth it.”
Four states currently offer institutional financial aid to undocumented students: Texas, California, New Mexico and Minnesota.
Correction: March 9
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Irina Anta LAW ’15.