By Derrick Perkins (File photo)
Geraldine Zenteno knew exactly where she wanted to go after graduation.
Researching universities, the 17-year-old T.C. Williams senior had fallen in love with The College of William and Mary. Zenteno wants to pursue a teaching career and the Williamsburg school’s education program ranks among the best in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.
But her heart sank when she took a look at the cost of attending. Despite calling Virginia home for years, Zenteno was ineligible for in-state tuition.
“The fact that I had to go from knocking off a school because it was too expensive … was a really frustrating process for me, especially seeing all these people excited about college,” said Zenteno, who arrived in the United States with her brother and parents at the age of four. “I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t an option for me.”
Though her family came here legally, they overstayed their welcome, Zenteno said. Her parents saw better opportunities for their two young children, but not the heavy toll the decision would take on the family.
Not pursuing citizenship was a mistake that “to this day they regret,” she said.
“They had no idea there was an opportunity for citizenship, they just came and even though we would be better off [than staying in Bolivia], me and my brother wouldn’t have had to suffer through this stress, this emotional damage of having to hide yourself,” Zenteno said.
But she and her brother saw a second chance with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative launched by President Barack Obama’s administration. Securing the special immigration status removes the threat of deportation and comes with advantages for job seekers.
Zenteno also assumed it left her eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia colleges and universities. It did not — until late last month.
Speaking at Northern Virginia Community College’s campus in Alexandria, Attorney General Mark Herring revealed that, in his legal opinion, deferred action status automatically makes students eligible for in-state tuition, provided they meet the commonwealth’s residency requirements. Though the announcement sent shockwaves through the state’s political elite, Zenteno did not find out for a day or two until she saw an email from Margaret Montague, a college advisor for Alexandria City Public Schools.
Zenteno is one of the many students Montague has helped navigate the college application process in spite of their immigration status. Many don’t know how difficult the process will be until they begin looking at college and filling out the federal student aid application, she said.
It’s often a difficult conversation.
“Typically students, like a couple of students I’ve had that conversation with this year, at first seemed very stunned,” Montague said. “They don’t know what to say; they don’t know how to respond. I try to say things that are encouraging and hand out a list of resources, a list of colleges that have historically given aid to students that are undocumented. I try to give them as many resources and say, ‘You do have options.’”
But since Herring’s announcement, Montague and her colleagues have been scrambling to get the information out to students across the school district.
“We came up with a resource guide with students and counselors: What is deferred action? What are the benefits? We’re trying to get the word out as quickly as possible,” she said. “I’ve heard from two students already who are now planning on going to Northern Virginia Community College. They’re hoping to go to NOVA and, after NOVA, go to a four-year school as well. [This] changes their game plan.”
That’s the path Zenteno will pursue. After a few years at Northern Virginia Community College, she plans to attend William and Mary.
“I had to give up on William and Mary,” she said. “It was very frustrating, very saddening, because the end of the year was coming and graduation is coming and I wasn’t as excited about graduating as I was in the beginning of the year. When [Herring’s announcement] came, it brought all hope back. I can go to William and Mary.”