Keeping the Dream alive

Sacramento program helps undocumented students stay focused on college
Linda Ocasio 1207
Spanish teacher Elizabeth Villanueva in Sacramento, California, is helping her concerned students get help and relief from fears of deportation.
Courtesy of Los Rios California Federation of Teachers
Sandra Guzman, a college counselor at Sacramento City College, founded the Dream Project.

After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Spanish teacher Elizabeth Villanueva noticed a change in her classroom at Luther Burbank HS in Sacramento, California, a large urban high school where 39 percent of the students are Hispanic.

“A lot of my students were not concentrating,” Villanueva said. “They were distracted. Several students were in tears. They told me about their anxiety that their parents would be deported.”

As she thought about the best way to help her students, she remembered a former student who was undocumented and reached out to him for advice. “He was better informed than I was,” Villanueva said. “He was working with Sandra Guzman. And that’s how we connected.”

Guzman, a college counselor at Sacramento City College, founded the Dream Project to create partnerships with area high schools, convey accurate information about immigration laws to students and their families and help undocumented high school students stay focused on their education goals, despite the uncertainty and hostility swirling around their legal status.

The Dream Project is but one example of the sort of educator-led projects that have sprung up across the country to protect and support undocumented children attending public schools. Here in New York City, teacher Michael Kane runs a DREAMers Alliance Club at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens and teacher Jennifer Queenan from Sunset Park HS facilitates a student-led Immigration Justice Now group.

Guzman recruited undocumented college students and faculty who are beneficiaries of the DACA program — including Villanueva’s former student — to conduct workshops for high school students on identity, immigration law and the college application process.

“The Dreamers who are now in college are returning to give high school students ideas about how to navigate a system that is hostile to them,” Villanueva said. “To see the DACA recipients is providing hope for my students, because here’s someone who did it.”

Guzman notes that the college instructors have associate’s, bachelor’s and doctorate degrees. “Our hope is that the high school students are constantly motivated toward the goal of continuing their education,” she said.

As a result of her school’s partnership with Guzman, Villanueva created a program at Luther Burbank HS to bring immigration lawyers and counselors and other speakers to the school. She recently took 20 undocumented students to Sacramento State University for a conference on “Keeping the Dream Alive.” The university provided funding for the students to attend and participate in workshops about their rights and the financial support for college available to them.

Luther Burbank HS parents are included in a family-night college orientation. “Because they’re high school students, you need to do a series of workshops so they retain the information,” Guzman said. “We structure the workshops around the deadlines for college.”

Villanueva also pays home visits, so parents know it’s possible for their children to continue their education. “If the parents don’t know, the students get discouraged,” she said.

Most important for anyone trying to launch a similar program, she said, is the establishment of trust with students and their parents. “I won’t promise anything I can’t deliver,” she said.

Villanueva is no stranger to the fears her students are experiencing: At age 18, she arrived in the United States from Mexico with her mother, who had no official papers to enter this country.

Listening is a big part of what she does.

“There are so many stories,” Villanueva said. “I was in a healing circle with students, and some were crying in fear of deportation. It was so intense at that moment. Then, it became a relief after they expressed themselves. They see they’re not alone. Their story connects to other stories.”

Now Villanueva’s program will be a model for a similar program at Hiram Johnson HS, also in Sacramento. “There’s a need at our school,” said Ramiro Hernandez, an English teacher. “I’m seeing an increasing number of students from Central America, and this year a student opened up to me about leaving Honduras on his own. They need to know people are looking out for them.”

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