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How One Latina’s App Is Helping Undocumented Students Find Ways To Pay For College

For high school seniors, applying to college can be a stressful process with applications and countless fees. But what can be even more stressful is being told you can’t go to college because of money. This is the harsh reality for thousands of undocumented immigrants every year that find out they don’t qualify for FAFSA or any government scholarships due to their legal status in the United States. Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, knows first hand how this felt back in 2008 when she found out she didn’t qualify for FAFSA because she was undocumented.

“When I was in high school I found out that because I was undocumented I was not going to be able to qualify for FAFSA like all my other friends,” Salamanca, then 18, told Forbes. “I asked my counselor for guidance on other options to finance my college education and she said that people like me didn’t go to college.”

Espinoza Salamanca knew she had to find a solution to to an issue that affects millions in the U.S.

Credit: Jesse Urrutia

Salamanca, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Mexico at the age of 4, had little to no resources to help pay for college.. At that time in California, in 2008, she qualified for some money under AB540, which allows certain undocumented students in-state tuition. However, it didn’t work to help pay for college since Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration policy that provides qualified undocumented immigrants with a renewable work permit, didn’t exist until 2012.

Due to these circumstances, Salamanca didn’t go to college directly after high school because she didn’t think she could afford it. Instead, she worked jobs like cleaning houses and taking care of children.

Salamanca wasn’t the only one facing this dilemma, according to Educators for Fair Consideration, a nonprofit that advocates for undocumented immigrants, about 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school each year but only 10,000 graduate from college. 

With limited options, Salamanca took things into her own hands. She would submit an idea proposal to Voto Latino’s Innovator Challenge, which gives awards to five people with the best ideas in STEM aimed at Latinos in the U.S. Her proposal was DREAMers Roadmap, a nonprofit app that helps undocumented students around the country find scholarships to go to college.

Salamanca would win the competition and earn $100,000 to help jump start the app. She began working full time for DREAMer’s Roadmap after getting her associate’s degree from Cañada College in Redwood City in 2015.

Since the app launched in 2016, it
has helped over 20,000 undocumented students find scholarships.

Credit: @ModernLatinas/Twitter

The app finds scholarships from different organizations and shares scholarship information via text, email or social media. It also allows users to search for scholarships without having to create an account in case some undocumented students don’t want to give personal information.

DREAMer’s Roadmap has opened us countless opportunities for undocumented students across the country. Salamanca told Forbes that she is constantly hearing back from students about how the app has changed the trajectory of their lives. The app has also gained multiple national sponsors including the UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program.

“As I travel the country sharing my story and my work I’ve been blessed to have met many of the users of our app and hearing their stories reminds me that we are doing a good job and fulfilling our mission of bringing hope and financial opportunities to immigrant communities.”

This is just the first step for Salamanca, who wants to continue helping undocumented students reach higher education.

Credit:@DreamersRoadmap/Twitter

Now a 28-year-old resident of East Palo Alto, Salamanca has received national praise and recognition for her work. In 2018, she was nominated for a Visionary of the Year award for her work towards undocumented communities. Salamanca now has a green card and has plans to continue her education at a four-year-college.

But for all the successes that have come Salamanca’s way she never forgets why she started this all. She reminds others the value of higher education and why having it harder for some to access it, is a loss of so much potential.

We are a country of immigrants and many of our giant companies have been founded by immigrants so why not educate our immigrants and accept them,” Salamanca told Forbes. “We as a country are losing so much talent and potential by making it so hard to educate these students. You would think we want to be a society of the most educated people but we make it nearly impossible for these kids to have an opportunity to be an essential part of this country. This is our home too.”

READ: ICE Releases Flight Attendant and DACA Recipient That Was Held for 6 Weeks

I Chose The Name Leia When I Transitioned And Meeting Carrie Fisher Is A Moment I Will Never Forget

Identity

I Chose The Name Leia When I Transitioned And Meeting Carrie Fisher Is A Moment I Will Never Forget

Lucas Films / leiacheyanne92 / Instagram

It happened in a galaxy not too far away, meeting interstellar royalty. I was a cashier in a well-known beauty retailer based in the heart of Beverly Hills, California. What started as a trivial shift of organizing lipsticks and rechecking rollerballs became one of the most memorable moments in my life.

I was busy trying to solve the ever-constant mystery of lost pens. Fair to say I wasn’t completely focused on my jobs at hand as I did the meticulous work. I was rather new to Los Angeles and the beauty retail world still learning the ropes.

Credit: leiacheyanne92 / Instagram

It was that in moment a chocolate French bulldog lapped his extra long tongue on my shoes. I bent down laughing, petting him while his tongue spiraled up in between heavy pants. This wasn’t just any pampered pooch off Rodeo Drive, this dog in question was Gary Fisher, the one and only Carrie Fisher’s dog.

Credit: garyfisher / Instagram

This would be a good moment to clear up any confusion. My name is Leia, Carrie Fisher plays a character in the film series, Star Wars, Princess Leia, and Gary Fisher is obviously the full/accepted name of her dog. I wasn’t always named Leia. Up until I was 22, I was Jacob. I’m transgender. Fisher’s Star Wars character Princess Leia was always someone I looked up to. Her strength and fighting spirit are things I could relate to and I wanted to keep her strength with me. My name was now Leia and I was intentionally channeling that strength to guide me.

Credit: leiacheyanne92 / Instagram

So when I looked up to see Carrie Fisher with hundreds of dollars of sheet masks I was speechless. As a kid, I watched this woman run through the Death Star, dodging Stormtroopers braless! These are some of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood. Now it’s key to note, working in Beverly Hills, the easiest way to get fired is by making celebrities feel awkward. Oscar-nominated bad business is frowned upon. While I rang her up all I could mumble about was that her last-minute gold nail polish purchase was the “same shade as C-3PO,” and we smiled. I then saw Carrie’s eyes lock with my name tag and heard her, “Oh my God! Your name!” I nodded. She nodded. We shared a moment of clarity. I was finally acknowledged by Alderaan. Gary, Carrie, and there was I, Leia. It was the same year she passed away, but that particular day two Leia’s met in the middle. The original Princess Leia who inspired my name and taught me what it meant to be a woman had found me, accepted me, and welcomed me into her tribe. You could say it was a little luck or the Force but it’s something I’ll have a long, long time no matter how brief.

Credit: leiacheyanne92 / Instagram

I still work in the beauty industry and getting clients to remember my name comes down to one simple sentence, “Oh, and I’m Leia… like Star Wars.” The whole concept of naming oneself during a transition of gender is daunting. Many transgender/nonbinary identifying people change their name multiple times. My distinction didn’t take much thought. It was my first day in Los Angeles ordering coffee and being asked for my name, “I’m Leia… like Star Wars.” It was easily understood by the majority of the population and thus I became a part of a smile, of a sci-fi connection, of a Carrie Fisher stand up or book prologue. I was suddenly surrounded by the image of a side bunned, hard ass, space princess and if I could leave that in my wake then I knew I could be that much more memorable. Plus, my closest friends already addressed me as Leia at the beginning of my transition so it just made sense. I remember my encounter with Carrie Fisher fondly every year when May The 4th comes around and the power of that moment continues to impact my life.

READ: Why This Transgender Mexicana Picked This Biblical Name

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