Basalt Dreamers hold high hopes for college despite immigration policy debate | AspenTimes.com

Basalt Dreamers hold high hopes for college despite immigration policy debate

Basalt High School students Aranza and Nathaly are dreaming big as they near graduation — despite the usual challenges facing seniors and new uncertainty over their ability to remain in the U.S.

It's stressful enough filling out the mounds of paperwork and writing essays to try to earn acceptance into a favored college, then scraping up the funds to attend. Now both young women have the added burden of wondering about the fate of a program designed to benefit people who were brought into the U.S. illegally by their families as children.

Aranza came to Basalt when she was nine months old and Nathaly arrived at three years of age.

"This is home for us. We don't know any place other than Basalt," Nathaly said.

“This is home for us. We don’t know any place other than Basalt.”

— Nathaly, senior at Basalt High School

Both young women qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Obama in 2012. Both said their parents spent considerable amounts to hire attorneys to help them apply for the designation.

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President Trump announced last month he will end the program, but he also called on Congress to enact a law to protect 800,000 DACA recipients in the country. They are often referred to as "Dreamers." The issue affects hundreds of Roaring Fork Valley residents.

Qualifying for DACA allows a person to work and makes it easier to attend college and receive financial aid. They aren't targeted for deportation unless they get into legal trouble.

The two students were willing to share their stories, but they didn't want their last names disclosed because of the uncertainty of the program.

While that uncertainty clouds their future, both young women are intent on going to college. They said they have gotten a boost from participating in the Roaring Fork PreCollegiate program.

The Roaring Fork School District makes the program available to students in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs who would be first-generation college attendees. The program provides extra motivation and helping hands in preparing for college.

The students work with school staff and community volunteers who serve as mentors. The mentors regularly meet with a dozen or so students and counsel them on everything from preparing for interviews to life skills, such as personal finances.

Aranza and Nathaly said they've gotten attached to mentors Jim and Dianne Light of Basalt, at times turning to them for comfort as much as for advice.

"When Trump became president, I was really worried," Aranza said.

A call to Jim on election night helped calm her, she said.

The political atmosphere remains a little unnerving. Aranza said friends will sometimes joke that people like her are taking jobs in the U.S. She knows they don't mean it, but it still deflates her. Since she was brought to the U.S. when she was only nine months old, she obviously didn't have any control of the matter. She regards Basalt as home.

"I literally don't know anything about Mexico," she said.

She wishes she could be judged by her accomplishments as a student and good behavior rather than her residency status.

"I'm illegal, but I'm not embarrassed about it," she said.

She's tried not to stress out over immigration issues by putting her fate in the hands of God.

"My faith is keeping me straightforward," she said.

Aranza wants to go to college for physical therapy and aspires to attend Puget Sound University.

Nathaly said she realized at a young age she wanted to go to college.

"I want to give back to my family because they gave so much to me," she said.

She uses the political debate over immigration as motivation. She wants to show that she's here to make a difference, not take someone's job. Her parents made sacrifices and brought her to the U.S. because of the opportunities, she said. They are working long hours to give her a better life and make college a possibility.

"We want to make our parents proud and show that it was worth it," Nathaly said.

She is looking into attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Colorado State University. She's interested in the medical field, she said, because she wants to help people.

Aranza said she and Nathaly embrace the term Dreamers because it reflects how they are working for a better life.

"I definitely believe that I am a Dreamer," she said.

There are about 360 kids in the Roaring Fork PreCollegiate program this year, seventh through 12th grade, from the three towns, according to executive director David Smith.

The vast majority of students in the program is Latino and roughly 20 percent are undocumented. Most of those in the country without permission are Dreamers, Smith said.

The program also has been an inspiration for the sons and daughters of immigrants who are the first generation in their families to be born in the U.S. Without the program, college might not be as attainable because of a lack of understanding on how to get accepted.

"They don't know what they don't know," said Dianne Light.

She said one of their jobs as mentors is to constantly remind the students about deadlines for college applications and related materials.

Albert Marquez credited the the PreCollegiate program for some monumental changes for him.

"I want to say it reshaped my life, to be honest," said Marquez, a Basalt native whose parents came to the Roaring Fork Valley from El Salvador.

He said he was always a good student but also socially awkward. The PreCollegiate program has helped ease that shyness and also provided inspiration to pursue higher education. He hopes to stay in Colorado and study engineering and business.

Stephanie Nevarez has aspired to be a pedestrian since she was a young girl. As a good student, she is preparing to apply to several top-notch schools such as Michigan, Baylor and Texas Christian.

"I think this program has helped me a lot," she said.

Nevarez, another native of the valley, took extra classes during summers at Colorado Mountain COllegeMC during her freshman and sophomore years and at the University of COlorado at BoulderCU as a junior and senior. She's also participated in a foreign exchange program.

She inherited a strong work ethic from her parents, who came to the Roaring Fork Valley from Mexico. "My parents are always pushing me," she said.

The PreCollegiate program was created 15 years ago as a partnership with CMC and CU. The Aspen Community Foundation provided seed money.

Smith said the program has a successful track record of inspiring students and getting them interested in college. All of the students who have successfully completed the program have graduated from high school and been accepted by college.

"The number that have actually proceeded to college, two- or four-year, is over 95 percent," he said.

Of those who attend a four-year school, about 80 percent graduate. It's closer to 55 percent for attendees of two-year schools.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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