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Advocates raise $136,850 to send immigrant students to college

Story by Molly Davis

Nashville Tennessean

FEB. 26, 2022, Nashville, Tenn. – Anette Guzman did not know any English when she started kindergarten. Her parents moved their family to Memphis from Mexico City when she was a child, and she was entered into ESL classes when she started school.

As she grew up, Guzman earned straight A’s, did well on standardized tests and began dreaming of attending college one day.

However, because her family entered the country illegally, she was ineligible for in-state tuition in Tennessee, and she couldn’t get any state or federal financial aid.

Her dream faded even further when she found out she would become a mom as a senior in high school.

“Affording college and raising a daughter simultaneously did not seem possible at all,” Guzman said. “Seeing my classmates go away to college was truly heartbreaking to me.”

While she was seven months pregnant, Guzman sat in the back row of her church and told her cousin about her extinguished dream of going to college. He told her about Equal Chance for Education, a scholarship fund for immigrants that had recently expanded to Memphis.

a group of people standing next to a person in a suit and tie
Photo by Molly Davis / Nashville Tennessean

Anette Guzman spoke at a fundraiser for ECE about her struggles to afford college and thanked founder Dr. Michael Spalding for his support on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 at the Hermitage in Nashville. 

“I went home and immediately applied for the program,” Guzman said. “After completing the interview process, I could finally say I would be going to college.”

ECE, a program aimed at helping first-generation immigrants access higher education, hosted its inaugural fundraiser Feb. 17 to benefit their annual scholarship fund.

Since its inception in 2014, the organization has supported 486 scholars at 20 colleges and universities in Tennessee.

Former publisher of The Washington Post Don Graham and writer and presidential biographer Jon Meacham served as panelists at the event. Former NBC News anchor John Seigenthaler served as a moderator.

Nearly 8,000 students, including those protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, living in Tennessee face “impossible financial barriers” to accessing higher education, according to ECE. The average age of the scholars served by ECE came to the U.S. at age 5, and many have never lived anywhere else.

“Under our Constitution, they are guaranteed the right to a high school education; however, when it comes to applying to college, they face many discriminative challenges,” ECE President Charles Robert Bone said. “They have no access to student loans, state or federal funding and are not eligible for in-state tuition at community colleges and public institutions.”

a group of people sitting at a table
Photo by Molly Davis / Nashville Tennessean

From left to right: Jon Meacham, Don Graham and John Seigenthaler were panelists at the ECE Fundraiser Feb. 17, 2022 at the Hermitage in Nashville. 

Dr. Michael Spalding founded the organization when his friend’s daughter was denied access to higher education because of her immigration status. He approached Nashville State Community College to pay the student’s tuition, only to find that she didn’t qualify for in-state tuition in Tennessee — the only home she had ever known.

After receiving the financial support and advocacy of Spalding, Melissa Patino-Gonzalez graduated from Lipscomb University in 2018 and now works as a special education teacher at Hillwood High School in Nashville.

Patino-Gonzalez was joined by 16 other ECE scholars at the event who shared their stories of pursuing higher education after thinking it would be impossible.

ECE has grown since Spalding supported his first student, and 131 graduates are now in the Tennessee workforce. ECE distributes $2.1 million in scholarships annually.

Program scholars have a 3.27 average GPA and the program has a 96% retention rate.

All of the graduates of ECE’s program are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or another program allowing them to work in the U.S. The Obama-era DACA program grants temporary work permits and Social Security numbers to people who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

Help send Tennessee DREAMers to college.

ECE is partnered with 14 colleges and universities in Tennessee, including Trevecca Nazarene University and Cumberland University.

There are about 100 DACA students at Trevecca today, and 62 of them are supported by ECE, university president Dan Boone said.

“These are some of the most remarkable students I’ve ever met,” Boone said.

Cumberland University has partnered with the organization since its inception, and university president Paul Stumb said that ECE scholars have made a difference at Cumberland.

“They have provided such diversity, and they have been leaders in every aspect of our institution,” Stumb said. “We are a better institution today because of these young ECE scholars.”

DACA has been on uneven ground since its start and is at risk once again after a Texas judge ruled it to be against federal immigration law in July.

Graham, who runs his own national scholarship fund for DACA recipients called Dream.US, said without DACA or a path to citizenship, students may have to consider the jobs their parents have historically held.

a group of people standing next to a person in a suit and tie
Photo by Molly Davis / Nashville Tennessean

Equal Chance for Education scholars share their stories Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 at the Hermitage in Nashville. 

“So, in the future, Dream.US will be educating mostly undocumented students, and we are going to need to help them learn how to work as independent contractors, start their own businesses, or start their own co-op,” Graham said. “If we could send more students to college, we would.”

Despite the uncertainty facing many DACA recipients, who are also known as “Dreamers,” Meacham said there is still hope for the future.

“By helping the few, we also help the many,” Meacham said. “You make that case, and you do have some hope.”

For Guzman and others at the fundraiser, Spalding has already changed the trajectory of their lives and the lives of future generations.

More: Sending Undocumented Students to College in Tennessee

“It never ceases to amaze me that I get to wake up every morning and continue to forge an amazing future for my family and myself,” Guzman said. “If I were to tell my younger self that I would be here, I would not have believed it.”

Guzman graduated with honors from the University of Memphis and now works as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. She also has a healthy baby girl.

“Graduating from college may be a given to many people, or it may not be at the top of everyone’s priority list,” Guzman said. “But for my fellow ECE scholars and myself, it is everything that we’ve ever dreamed of.”

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