Non-native students seek degrees, dreams

  • mendoza-student

    Peru native Lucy Mendoza.

    The Blade/Lori King
    Buy This Image

  • Peru native Lucy Mendoza.
    Peru native Lucy Mendoza.

    She was voted “most likely to succeed” by her classmates and teachers.

    By the time exemplary student Lucy Mendoza, now 19, graduated from Toledo’s Early College High School in 2011, she already had earned nearly half the college credits needed to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toledo.

    The university even rewarded her with a $10,000 President’s Award to continue her studies.

    “When I received the award, I thought, ‘Wow, someone actually believes in me, someone believes in my potential,’ ” said Ms. Mendoza, whose dream is to earn a bachelor’s degree and become a professional journalist.

    Ms. Mendoza is among a growing number of young undocumented immigrants in the Toledo area pursuing college educations and professional careers despite their illegal residency status.

    Some have found welcoming arms from schools such as the University of Toledo, where staff and administrators help them enroll. At least two illegal immigrants reported their enrollment applications were denied by Bowling Green State University.

    The admission’s office at BGSU said it doesn’t have an official policy, but it usually allows anyone to enroll if the student can pay tuition.

    “There’s nothing that would prevent them from enrolling,” university spokesman Dave Kielmeyer said. “But they would not be eligible for state or federal aid.”

    University of Toledo spokesman Jon Strunk the school doesn’t recruit undocumented students, but they are welcome.

    “The University of Toledo is committed to providing educational opportunities for all members of our community,” Mr. Strunk said. “Undocumented students are not actively recruited, but those who proactively work to advance themselves are welcome. UT works to assist these students on a case-by-case basis and ensure that they are treated no different than any other student in the classroom.”

    No statewide policy

    Peru native Lucy Mendoza meets with her former Toledo Early College teachers Randy Nissen, left, and Nick Muehling at Biggby Coffee.
    Peru native Lucy Mendoza meets with her former Toledo Early College teachers Randy Nissen, left, and Nick Muehling at Biggby Coffee.

    Mark Heller, managing attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality’s Migrant Farmworker and Immigration Program in Toledo, said there is no statewide policy for illegal immigrants enrolling at public colleges or universities.

    “Each state university adopts their own policy,” Mr. Heller said. “You would think that state schools would have a uniform policy, but that’s not the case. We’d like to get a more consistent status.”

    The inconsistency can be confusing for students and school officials, Mr. Heller said. For example: Should illegal immigrants be charged in-state, or international tuition rates? Those decisions are usually decided on a case-by-case basis, Mr. Heller and other immigrant advocates say.

    University officials from Bowling Green and Toledo declined to comment on the issue.

    Former UT trustee Baldemar Velasquez said he often encouraged school officials while he was a member of the board to help undocumented immigrants enroll. The success of students such as Ms. Mendoza is a strong argument for giving citizenship to many undocumented residents, he said.

    “It’s an important issue for America,” said Mr. Velasquez, president of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a farm workers’ union.

    “It’s an issue about the brain drain going on in this country. We’re always trying to bring educated people from other countries here to do skilled jobs, but we already have those people here. Let’s allow them to serve their country.”

    Path not easy

    Even when undocumented students are allowed to enroll, it’s not an easy path. Their lack of Social Security numbers keeps them from applying for or receiving federal grants or loans, scholarships, or other forms of financial assistance.

    Instead, some immigrant youths’ families scrimp and save to afford tuition, and private donors sometimes step forward to help. Others students, like Ms. Mendoza, enroll in early college preparatory programs and receive awards that don’t have residency requirements.

    UT and BGSU don’t keep records of how many students are illegal residents, school administrators said.

    The Blade in recent weeks contacted 10 undocumented students who are, or were recently, enrolled at UT. Except for Ms. Mendoza, they all declined to be interviewed.

    Some feared deportation, while others had more personal reasons. One recent graduate feared how his fraternity brothers would react; he never had told them about his illegal status. Another student had not yet told her boyfriend or his family that she is in the United States illegally.

    Like Ms. Mendoza, all were brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were young children. They’ve grown up thinking and acting like Americans, because that’s the only life they’ve known.

    Negative connotation

    There’s such a negative connotation to the term “illegal immigrant” that many undocumented immigrants are ashamed to admit their status, said Ms. Mendoza, who was 8 when her family entered the country.

    “I’ve seen people depressed, suicidal,” she said. “They ask themselves, ‘Why am I not good enough? I didn’t choose to live in a country where I don’t have any opportunities.’ ”

    The two recent University of Toledo graduates received bachelor’s degrees in December, but can’t find jobs in their professions because they can’t legally work in the United States. Both hope eventually to be allowed to become U.S. citizens, enabling them to fulfill their dreams.

    Ms. Mendoza already has applied for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows those who came into the country illegally with their parents before age 16 a chance to stay for two years. Those who qualify pay taxes and can obtain Social Security cards, allowing legal employment.

    But it is not a direct path to citizenship.

    Ms. Mendoza has told very few people that she is an illegal immigrant. She said she agreed to share her story because she wants to speak out for herself and for others who can’t.

    “To most people, I’m a debate. I’m an issue. I’m a number. I’m an alien,” Ms. Mendoza said. “No, you’re debating my life.”

    Money runs out

    Randy Nissen, who taught history to Ms. Mendoza at Toledo’s Early College High School, said America needs to offers citizenship to immigrants such as her. Too many bright immigrants are falling through society’s cracks, he said.

    “It was always disheartening for me to see this incredibly hard-working kid who wants to go to college — it’s the American dream,” Mr. Nissen said. “I think we have to do everything we can to help someone that dedicated find a path to citizenship.”

    Ms. Mendoza’s college dream derailed last spring. She was charged the international tuition rate and ran out of money, despite the $10,000 scholarship from UT, after one semester.

    She now works part-time at a clothing and accessories store in Toledo, hoping to save enough money to someday complete her education. She needs about 50 more credits to earn that degree.

    Ms. Mendoza said her parents already have paid a steep price for her dreams. Her father had been a chemical engineer in Peru, her mother a kindergarten teacher. Her parents came here on visas but the visas expired. They’re now trying to gain documented status. They have tried a few times already, but have been declined.

    They both work as housekeepers in the United States because they are here illegally, she said.

    “I don’t know how things are going to happen,” Ms. Mendoza said. “But, it’s a dream I’m going to follow, no matter how long it takes.”

    Contact Federico Martinez at: or 419-724-6154.