Equity & Diversity

Guidance Counselors Often Struggle To Help Undocumented Students

By Robert C. Johnston — May 31, 2000 3 min read

Trying to help high-achieving students who are undocumented aliens reach their college goals has become a routine as confusing as it is heartbreaking for many high school guidance counselors here and across the country.

Typically, the challenge is not in getting the students admitted. The real task is recognizing and negotiating the legal obstacles that prohibit these students from receiving federal financial aid or paying in-state tuition because of their immigration status.

“I won’t discourage an undocumented kid,” said John Orendorff, a counselor at Belmont High School in downtown Los Angeles. “Although it’s heartbreaking to have these acceptance letters and not be able to pay, it’s still important because a private donor might come along.”

Even that can turn sour, however. Recently, the University of Southern California informed Mr. Orendorff that a $16,000, one-year scholarship from a private donor was withdrawn from a student after the school realized she was not a legal resident and feared she wouldn’t be able to fund the subsequent years.

“That really stung me,” the veteran counselor said. “I had to break the news to her.”

Seeking Diversity

Several counselors interviewed for this story said that private colleges are the most flexible when it comes to offering financial aid to star students who are undocumented.

“A lot of us have created our own network of colleges who will fund these kids,” said Nancy Caine, the director of college counseling at St. Augustine High School in San Diego. “Highly endowed schools are increasingly willing to do this because they want diversity and these are really smart kids.”

Julie Neilson, a high school counselor in Los Angeles, wishes she could do more for undocumented students.
—Robert C. Johnston

Julie Neilson, a college counselor at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, said she encourages students who tell her they are undocumented to apply to private schools where they have a chance of getting financial help, and bypass state schools because they are too expensive.

She added that she is frustrated that there is not more help from the California higher education community: “I’ve stood up with other counselors at meetings with college officials and said we must link together to say we can’t do this to kids who have been here for 10 years or more.”

For some, the first step in helping students who are illegal aliens is coming to grips with their own political and philosophical beliefs.

Esther Wahling, a college counselor at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, said she supports more rigorous patrolling of the United States’ borders to stem the tide of illegal immigrants. But she maintains that the undocumented students she works with are not leaving the country when they leave high school and that, therefore, their talents should not be wasted by denying them college.

“We are losing extremely talented and motivated young people who are willing to bring their family and community along with them,” she said. “They are the majority of my students.”

‘Wrong Advice’

Most counselors interviewed agreed that these students stand a better chance of getting the help they need to pay for college if they get a head start on their immigration status.

“What is so frustrating is that for a lot of these kids, if the parents had started the process or gone forward with amnesty, this would have been taken care of,” said Ms. Caine.

Many counselors have begun talking with 9th graders and their parents to inform them of the requirements for college financial aid and to make sure the children are aware of their legal status well before they finish high school.

Often, however, the counselors must wade outside their expertise and into the legal morass of immigration law to truly help a student.

“The more I learn about this, the less I know,” said Burt Rosenberg, the assistant principal at International High School in New York City. “I take a case to two immigration attorneys and get two different answers.”

Judy London, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer, warned of the dangers of educators giving advice on such complex issues. She said that one of her young clients is fortunate that he did not act on the advice of a teacher, who told him to go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and seek political asylum.

“He would have been deported in a week. The teacher was well-intentioned, but it was the wrong advice,” Ms. London said. “The first stop should be to get information on community agencies. They usually have free, weekly meetings.”

Asked what advice she would give counselors in this situation, Elaine Komis, a spokeswoman for the INS in Washington, said, “That’s a hard question ... I think it’s important for people to be aware of their status and the consequences of being illegal in the United States.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Guidance Counselors Often Struggle To Help Undocumented Students

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