Undocumented Student Struggles to Raise Money to Attend Elite University

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If you're about to enter college, it's time to nail down plans to move into student housing and probably past time to secure your plan to pay for tuition, fees, and living expenses. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports about one Southland high school graduate who's struggled to raise the money he needs before he's supposed to enroll at one of California's elite universities next month.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Seventeen-year-old Marlon, a recent high school graduate, reads the dream-come-true e-mail that landed in his inbox in late March.

Marlon: Dear Marlon, congratulations, I am pleased to offer you admission to the University of Berkeley for the fall, 2008. You and your family have every reason, every reason your academic and personal achievements. Enjoy this moment and picture yourself at Berkeley. A place where you can change the world.

Guzman-Lopez: Marlon made it happen. He earned A's and B's in the required college prep classes at Oscar de la Hoya charter high school. He took college entrance exams, filled out applications, and composed personal essays. His Spanish-speaking parents didn't understand the paperwork, and trusted him to do it right.

School founder Steve Barr's promise to find him a financial sponsor never materialized. A week and a half ago, when the first bill for the college of his choice followed that acceptance message, Marlon realized, line by line, what he was in for.

Marlon: That's for the room and board, which will be $1,312.50 a month. They're also, right here, they're putting the university fees, which are $3,964.25, the health insurance, $900, the class pass fee, transit, $57. The non-resident fee, which, $10,000.

Guzman-Lopez: The total: 27,870 dollars and 75 cents for one year at UC Berkeley. Marlon doesn't qualify for a single cent of state or federal financial aid, because his parents illegally sneaked him and his younger sister across the Arizona border 11 years ago. That's shut a lot of doors.

A 7-year-old California law allows undocumented high school graduates to enroll and pay in-state tuition at public universities. But Marlon's in-state tuition paperwork hadn't gone through as of last week. So UC Berkeley's billing him $16,000, due by the end of this week.

Marlon: I found this out, I just broke down, it just hit me really hard, and I just was desperate, I didn't know what to do.

Guzman-Lopez: His parents say a second mortgage on their two-story, $315,000 townhouse is out of the question. They haven't built up enough equity. And the slumping economy's hit them hard. For years, they've made a living taking photos and videos of weddings and quinceaneras.

Last year, they say, they earned about $6,000 a month. But this year, their Spanish-speaking clientele is doing very little celebrating. Marlon's father has taken on gardening work to make ends meet.

Even so, the family's making barely $2,500 a month – the equivalent of the monthly mortgage payment. They failed to pay it last month, and they may not make it this month. Raquel, Marlon's mother, said she and her son relied too much on that promise of help from Green Dot's Steve Barr.

Steve Barr: Yo le dije... vamos a comprarle chocolates... buscamos a Jose Huizar...

Guzman-Lopez: She's encouraged her son to raise the money by organizing fundraisers, selling chocolate, and knocking on as many high-profile doors as possible. With the clock ticking, Marlon and his family piled into their SUV every day last week with dozens of packets that included his high school transcripts, the UC Berkeley bill, and a letter explaining his family's story, his goal to become an aerospace engineer, and his financial need.

Receptionist: Y un numero de telefono?

Guzman-Lopez: On this day, they paid a visit to the East L.A. field office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Marlon: I want to talk to Gloria Molina, maybe she can help me, she has scholarship or any grants she can give out.

Guzman-Lopez: Marlon struck out. The aide who said he'd inform Molina isn't in. Strike two followed with a fruitless visit to a housing developer. Marlon carried a royal flush of civic commendations he's received for his volunteer and leadership work. They carry the signatures of Supervisor Gloria Molina, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, East L.A. Congresswoman Lucile Roybal-Allard, State Assemblymember Fabian Nunez, and others.

Woman: Pueden tomar asiento...

Guzman-Lopez: For his third at-bat, Marlon and his parents return to the Church of the Resurrection, the East L.A. Catholic parish where they'd sought spiritual solace after they first arrived in this country.

Mother: Si se acuerda que le prestamos la virgen con el Papa, cuando fallecio el Papa. Priest: OK, yes, yes, yes, yes. Father: Hizo su primer communion con Usted.

Guzman-Lopez: Marlon's mother reminded Pastor John Moretta that the family lent Resurrection Church a Virgin Mary statue for ceremonies after Pope John Paul the Second died. Moretta met with the family for half an hour. It was a good meeting. Moretta said he'd make the church hall available after Sunday masses for a benefit breakfast, and he'll request donations from parishioners.

John Moretta: Probably once a month, we get somebody that would be in a situation like this. But they know that some of them will rise to the challenge, some of them simply just fold up and say, "Well, it's just too much." And they wind up with some menial job, you know, where this talent, this capacity, is just being wasted.

Guzman-Lopez: By one estimate, Marlon's one of about 25,000 undocumented students who graduated from California high schools this year. The family had no time to waste. They needed to finalize details for a carwash at the Boyle Heights community center where Marlon volunteers. That and the church breakfast last Sunday earned Marlon $1,600 toward his UC Berkeley bill, and he'd gathered another thousand bucks here and there.

He found out on Monday that his in-state tuition paperwork went through. He was still short the $5,000 first payment due at the end of this week. Then, yesterday afternoon, just before an interview with this reporter regarding Marlon's financial situation, Green Dot founder Steve Barr said he'd asked champion boxer and Green Dot benefactor Oscar de la Hoya for help.

Steve Barr: I had a long scheduled meeting with the de la Hoya folks, and Richard Schaeffer, CEO of Golden Boy. And we called Oscar in Puerto Rico this morning, and he agreed to cover Marlon's tuition.

Guzman-Lopez: Marlon said he tried to keep his cool when Barr phoned him with the news.

Marlon: I kinda screamed, but not loud. (laughs) I screamed through the inside, because I didn't want to hurt Steve Barr's ear.

Guzman-Lopez: Barr said he's hesitant about picking and choosing whom to help, because many college-bound undocumented students graduate from his charter schools. Even though he's helped Marlon, he said, the uncertain future of the others still keeps him up at night.