Not long before Julissa Valladares graduated in the top 5% of her senior class at Abraham Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights, she won acceptance letters from UCLA, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.
But as a student who came to the U.S. at age 10 from her home state of Morazán, El Salvador, Valladares does not qualify for federal school loans or grants. Seeing no feasible way to pay for a UC education, Valladares, now 20, instead enrolled at Glendale Community College.
This spring, Valladares and students like her who moved to the U.S. before age 16 will for the first time be eligible for state grants and tuition fee waivers under the California Dream Act.
The law removes a huge hurdle for California students, but financial challenges persist. Without a Social Security number, Valladares is one of 400 undocumented students — 61% Latino, 22% Asian and 6% Armenian — at Glendale Community College who cannot legally drive, apply for federal loans or work to pay for school.
That's where the AB 540 Committee at Glendale Community College comes in.
Made up of a group of educators who still don't know how many students will receive tuition fee waivers this spring, the AB 540 Committee will continue its holiday fundraising campaign for scholarships for undocumented students.
Named after Assembly Bill 540 — which passed in 2001, freeing undocumented California students from the higher cost of paying out-of-state tuition — the committee has awarded 200 scholarships to those in good academic standing who have performed community service and qualify for financial need.
Donations offset the cost of class units, $46 each; enrollment fees, $30; transportation, $60 per month by bus; and textbooks, $125 average.
This fall, Valladares won a $400 scholarship to offset the $650 cost of the semester, not including textbooks.
“While the Dream Act passing was a great momentous event, it's just the tip of the iceberg,” said Andra Verstraete, the committee's founder and co-chair. “There's so much we need to do to be able to help fund their education. We want to make sure they continue their education — that they don't stop.”
Over the years, Verstraete said raising money for the students has become less “taboo.”
“There are so many people on campus and off campus now that support the work that we do,” she said. “It used to be just a handful of people donating to the cause.”
Valladares scrapes together college funds with help from her parents, babysitting jobs and money she occasionally earns from cleaning houses with her mother.
She hopes to qualify for fee waivers in spring and later Cal grants when she plans to transfer to Cal State Northridge next fall to pursue a degree in business management and marketing.
And while the California Dream Act opens up new territory for financial assistance, Valladares said there's still room for hope among students for more changes at the federal level.
“I'll be praying every single day for us to have the federal Dream Act,” she said. “There's more we can bring to this nation with our degrees than the older people — our parents.”
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.