New legislation means new opportunities for DACA students at Florida colleges

SANFORD, Fla. (July 31, 2014) – Until recently, a college education was out of reach for many high school students who entered the United States as children of undocumented immigrants.

Through a program that launched last fall, Seminole State College of Florida has provided full scholarships and tuition waivers for 12 students who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scholarship program.

The program is in partnership with the Hope CommUnity Center of Apopka. HCC identified the students and also provides assistance, such as computer labs and tutoring.

In less than a year, the program already is seeing successes. Agostina Bellini, 20, of Apopka, will be the first DACA scholarship recipient to graduate July 31.

Bellini, who has a sister also in the program, has been attending Seminole State since 2011. Until last fall, she was taking one class at a time.

“The DACA scholarship covered my full tuition,” says Bellini, who is originally from Argentina. “With my tuition paid, it allowed me to take a full class load and to finish my degree.”

Bellini, who will earn her Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree, plans to attend the University of Central Florida and study social work. She will graduate magna cum laude from Seminole State.

Scholarship recipient Bernarda “Eli” Garcia, 24, of Apopka, plans to graduate in December. In June, Garcia, a native of Mexico, attended the White House Summit on Working Families, where she heard presentations from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, among others.

Garcia says she has noticed a shift in what her dreams used to be and what they are now.

“When I was a little girl in Mexico, one of my dreams was to own a pair of sandals,” she says. “My dream has changed. My dream is to finish college, be the first generation in my family to earn a college degree and be a professional. I want to be a role model for my brother and for students who are undocumented to come out and say who they are. Our parents were really the first DREAMers. We are the second DREAMers. We want to give back to the community and the country.”

Seminole State plans to help more students like Garcia and Bellini achieve their dreams by continuing the partnership with HCC and sharing information with students and the community. Earlier this month, Seminole State President Dr. E Ann McGee and other College administrators met with the students to discuss the DACA program, its benefits and ways that it can be improved.

“The students have told us that they feel a sense of community, support and guidance at Seminole State,” says Geoff Fortunato, associate vice president of Student Services. “They aren’t just going to college; they’re thriving here. Hope CommUnity Center students who attend Seminole State have an average GPA of 3.43. We want to do all that we can to help them continue that success.”

Florida HB 851

In the United States, there are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students — children born abroad who are not U.S. citizens or legal residents — who graduate from U.S. high schools each year. These children are guaranteed an education in U.S. public schools through grade 12, but may face legal and financial barriers to higher education.

Florida HB 851, which went into effect July 1, aims to make a college education affordable for even more undocumented students. The legislation allows qualified undocumented students to pay the same tuition as Florida residents.

To qualify, undocumented students must:

  • Have attended a secondary school in Florida for three consecutive years immediately before graduating from a Florida high school.
  • Apply for enrollment in an institution of higher education within 24 months after high school graduation.
  • Submit an official Florida high school transcript as evidence of attendance and graduation.

In-state residents pay about one-quarter the amount paid by non-Florida residents.

Seminole State’s DACA scholarship students are hoping to help spread the word about the opportunities they’ve received at Seminole State. The College began partnering with HCC to provide assistance to undocumented students in 2003.

“The Hope CommUnity Center continues to help undocumented students achieve their dreams through resources and partnerships like ours,” Fortunato says. “Seminole State provides scholarship assistance and academic support to HCC students, and the College is committed to helping them reach their educational goals.”

Students can visit the International Student Office (Student Services, building A) at Seminole State's Sanford/Lake Mary Campus at any time to speak with an advisor or call 407.708.2041 for more information.