Allyson Suria was 8 years old when she came to the United States illegally from El Salvador to live with her parents. Soon after she arrived in Arlington County, her mother enrolled her in school and her father took her to get a library card.
“My parents always emphasized education,” she said, a value she took to heart. By her senior year at Washington-Lee High School, she had enrolled in some college-level courses and hoped to pursue a career in teaching.
But as graduation neared, she feared a college education would be impossible. Even though she was granted temporary legal status through an Obama administration program, she must pay out-of-state tuition, often three times the amount a permanent resident would pay.
She confided her concerns to a school counselor, who referred her to the Dream Project, an Arlington-based group that helps undocumented students apply for college and offers scholarships to help them pay for it.
As immigration reform has stalled in Congress, a growing number of scholarships and support groups have been springing up to nurture the college ambitions of an increasingly public group of Dreamers, typically children brought to this country illegally by their parents who have grown up in the United States and attended public schools but often cannot claim federal aid to pay for college.
Qualified undocumented students in 16 states, including Maryland, are able to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities, according to a tally by the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center.
In Virginia, the General Assembly is considering similar legislation that would offer in-state tuition to students who have been approved for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has expressed support for a Virginia Dream Act, but the state Senate last week blocked a bill in the education committee, voting along party lines to kill it. At least one bill is pending in the House of Delegates.
In the meantime, advocates say students must navigate a complex and expensive college process on their own.
The Dream Project, co-founded by Arlington School Board member Emma Violand-Sanchez, was created four years ago to help them and other immigrant students.
The first mentors were students at Georgetown University, where Violand-Sanchez is an adjunct professor. The mentors, in their college dorm, began coaching a few Arlington teens to help them prepare for the SAT.
Now a much larger group meets weekly in a conference room at Arlington Public Schools headquarters, with more than a half-dozen volunteer mentors, including teachers, counselors and recent Arlington graduates who are recipients of Dream Project scholarships.
“You deliver these children to the world, and then what happens?” asked Lourdes Rubio, a resource counselor who volunteers with the group. “I think it’s our responsibility to at least give them a platform where they can stand after they graduate.”
The Dream Project has helped more than two dozen students — including valedictorians and recent immigrants still struggling with English — go on to study at Northern Virginia Community College or four-year schools such as Bucknell University and Texas Tech.
Some graduates have become prominent activists for the Virginia Dream Act or comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. A few signed on to a lawsuit filed last month in Arlington County Circuit Court arguing that students approved for deferred-action status should be able to pay the same lower college tuition rates as other longtime Virginia residents.
In 2011, the Dream Project awarded four scholarships. Last year, it awarded 29. This year, 17 students are enrolled in the mentoring program, nearly double the size of last year’s group, and more are expected to apply for scholarships.
At a recent Thursday-night meeting, Linda Rodriguez, the mentoring-program coordinator, put the students to work, asking them to write a personal statement describing a time they showed perseverance in the face of adversity.
Rodriguez pulled students out one by one for an update on their college process. She asked: “How many colleges have you applied to?” “Where have you been accepted?” “What are your goals for your last semester?”
One student had been admitted to a program at Northern Virginia Community College, but she was worried that she might not pass an English Standards of Learning test she needed to graduate.
Another, with a 4.2 grade-point average, had acceptance letters from James Madison and George Mason universities and was waiting to hear from George Washington University and Georgetown. She needed to learn more about scholarships.
While most scholarships are off-limits to undocumented students, Rodriguez and other volunteers are constantly refining a database of scholarships that do not specify legal status as well as a growing number of scholarships that are designed for Dreamers.
The national Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the largest and best-known fund for Latino students, opened its applicant pool this year to students who have deferred-action status. It received nearly 2,000 applications, said Norma Vega, a senior vice president for the fund.
The Esperanza Education Fund, based in the District, invites immigrant students with or without legal status to apply and has matched students with mentors and provided $450,000 to about 50 students in the Washington region through grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000.
The Dream Project offers smaller amounts, usually $1,000 or $2,000, and students can apply every year they are in college.
Suria, 17, has applied to three colleges in Northern Virginia, and she is beginning to look for scholarships.
Getting to know other undocumented students has been perhaps the most rewarding part of the Dream Project, Suria said. “I had never known there were other kids like me that had the same problems that I had,” she said.
This month, she went with other students in the group to Richmond, where they were invited to march in McAuliffe’s inauguration parade.
“There were people clapping for us on the sidewalk and cheering us on,” she said. “It feels really nice to be accepted, especially when you have been keeping a secret for so long.”