A DACA student was struggling to get financial aid. Then Johns Hopkins offered emergency funds

Daniela Gaona didn't know how she would pay to fullfil her dream of pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling until just a few days before classes started this week.

That’s when Johns Hopkins University stepped in with emergency aid after a summer of lobbying by the 22-year-old Gaona.

Gaona is one of 800,000 young people known as “DACA.” They were brought to or kept in the United States illegally by their parents, but allowed to stay under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Their immigration status disqualifies these young people for federal financial aid for college. They also are barred from state financial aid in 42 states and in-state tuition rates in 30 states.

They can seek private funding, but banks are usually reluctant. The same is true of private scholarship funders, although a few nonprofits have cropped up specifically to provide aid to DACA kids. Some universities also have set up their own funds to help these students.

Most DACA students struggle to pay for an education, working multiple jobs and cobbling together paychecks, experts say.

Gaona’s experience in paying for college reflects that of many young immigrants, who like her might not have legal citizenship, but are more American than they are the culture of their native countries. They are caught up in the crackdown on immigrants by the Trump administration, which also set visa restrictions on some countries, making it difficult for their citizens to attend U.S. colleges and universities.

Hazem Rihawi, an international aid worker from Syria, got a full scholarship to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, but waited anxiously for months to find out if he would get a visa to come. He got the visa and arrived in Baltimore this week.

Gaona was 9 years old when in 2005 her mom said they were taking a trip to the United States. Mary Caceres secured travel visas so she and her daughter were in the country legally at first. But trying to escape the violence in her native country of Colombia and domestic problems, she applied for asylum when the visas expired. Colombia was in the middle of a civil war that took the life of Caceres’ brother, who was killed by guerrillas.

Caceres never received asylum status, but was able to get a work visa through 2019. But when she showed up for a routine Immigration and Customs Enforcement check in May, she was detained and then deported a month later. Gaona had just moved to Baltimore to work and spend the summer before enrolling at Johns Hopkins.

Gaona and her mom paid for her undergraduate degree in North Florida themselves. The pair worked janitorial jobs in malls and cleaned houses to make money. Gaona also worked as a receptionist at a behavioral health clinic and held several other jobs.

But graduate school at Johns Hopkins was different. At an estimated $35,000 a year for classes and expenses, it would be much harder to cobble together enough money.

Gaby Pacheco, program director for The Dream.US, which provides scholarships to DACA students, said she hears stories like Gaona’s all the time. The students struggle to pay for community college, but graduate school and sometimes undergraduate school are out of reach.

Pacheco has pushed for businesses, states and universities themselves to help ease the burden on these students by offering financial assistance in some form.

“There is a lot more these institutions can do, especially because the majority of the institutions have millions and billions of dollars in their endowments,” Pacheco said.

Institutions like Chicago Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, Claremont Graduate University and CUNY Graduate Universities are already doing this, Pacheco said.

Critics argue that scholarships shouldn’t be set aside for DACA students and that citizens are missing out on funds when they go to these students.

“Any dollar a university gives to support a DACA person’s education is one that doesn’t go to a legal immigrant or a legal citizen,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that pushes for tighter immigration controls.

Gaona began lobbying Hopkins in May for financial assistance. President Ronald J. Daniels publicly expressed his support for DACA students last year after the Trump administration said it would rescind DACA protections and students began to worry about deportation. In a letter to faculty, students and staff, Daniels vowed to provide emergency aid or other financial support so students could finish their degrees at Johns Hopkins.

Trump’s DACA decision is now tied up in courts, but students like Gaona still say they need help.

When she first approached Hopkins in May, Gaona said, there were no offers of financial help. Instead, she received emails stating that DACA students must be permanent residents or citizens to be eligible for financial aid. She started a GoFund Me account and continued to save money from her job working with children with autism.

“It was my dream, but now it’s my nightmare,” she said last week of trying to pay for school.

After The Baltimore Sun reached out to Johns Hopkins last week about Gaona’s story, she received an email Saturday from Hopkins officials asking for more information.

On Monday, Gaona received a letter from the Office of the Dean at the School of Education saying the university would provide financial assistance.

“Because of the exceptional circumstances that you and your mother are experiencing, the Dean has agreed to offer you tuition assistance in the amount of $7,500 per year ($2,500 per semester),” the letter said. “You must remain enrolled and in good academic standing to receive these funds and you are responsible for the remaining balance owed to the University.”

In an email to The Sun, Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea said that DACA status is not a factor in decisions about admissions or financial aid, and that the university does not track how many DACA students are enrolled.

“The university remains strongly supportive of DACA students,” the email said. “Should DACA be rescinded, we will provide emergency aid or other financial support to affected students to ensure they can complete their degrees at Johns Hopkins. In addition, we work to assist all students with financial need, including unexpected changes in financial status.”

The university would not talk specifically about Gaona’s case because of privacy concerns, but O’Shea said the university had been working to help support her for some time.

Gaona said she is thankful for the financial assistance. She was determined to get her degree even if it meant taking one class a semester.

She misses her mom, but talks to her as often as she can. She tries to stay strong and strive for a better life the way her mom wanted even though she can’t be there to experience it.

“It’s so hard,” Gaona said. “I don't know if I will see her again because I can’t go there and she can’t come here. But I know she is proud of me.”

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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