By Peter Fiorilla
At this time last year, freshman Andrea Rosario had no inkling of what her future held. Then in her senior year of high school, Rosario had the grades as well as the ambition to attend college, but she was in a singularly unusual position: As one of New Jersey’s undocumented residents, Rosario would have needed to pay an impractically high out-of-state premium for a local higher education.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college, I just didn’t know how,” Rosario said. “And I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer and study law from a very young age, I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
But the stars aligned when the New Jersey DREAM Act was signed into law on Dec. 19, 2013, allowing undocumented students to attend college at an in-state rate and opening a window of opportunity for Rosario — an aspiring lawyer with a double major in history and political science, as well as minors in women’s and gender studies and pre-law — to attend the College.
“And so when the law was passed — Chris Christie signed it last year — I was in tears. I kneeled down and said ‘thank you’ to God, and I was just like, ‘wow,’” Rosario said. “I wasn’t prepared to come to college. Prior to that being passed, I didn’t think I was going to college. I said I’m going to wait until I get my residency because I can’t afford this.”
Rosario’s dream became a reality
this fall, as she became the first member of her Dominican family — which immigrated to the U.S. from Spain — to attend college. But pulling together tuition funds became unsustainably draining for Rosario and her family, emotionally and financially.
Even with the in-state rate factoring into the equation, the cost of college for undocumented residents is abnormally high. Rosario is unable to apply for any financial aid from the College, such as scholarships or loans, and she found herself spending too much time trying to figure out how to stay in school.
“It affected me academically, it affected me as far as the courses and grades — I had missed a lot of days of classes just because I was in meetings, speaking to people and trying to figure out a way of staying here,” Rosario said. “So my attention, at a time, was not in school.”
Whether schools should offer financial aid to undocumented students is a legitimate question, but not one the College is able to answer because of factors outside of its control.
“The College’s hands are tied when it comes to providing student aid to undocumented students,” said David Muha, associate vice president for Communications, Marketing and Brand Management. “Eligibility for state and federal grant and loan programs is set by the state and federal governments and applies to students at all colleges and universities, not just TCNJ.”
For Rosario, trying to juggle a collegiate course load, hold down a part-time job on campus and devise financial strategies proved to be too much. The 17-year-old needed a Plan B as her situation became more dire.
Then, a College adviser working with Rosario came to her with an outside-the-box idea: She should tell people her story and start a fundraiser for tuition funds on gofundme.com, a popular crowdfunding website.
“I never really thought of creating one, and then one of the advisers here — his name is Mr. (Jamal) Johnson — he told me ‘you should start a ‘gofundme’ to help pay for your tuition,’” Rosario said. “So I put my story there. I had my high school teacher edit it and I had my professor here edit it, also. When I thought it was ready, I published it.”
The fundraiser blew expectations away within weeks, humbling Rosario. On the back of an anonymous $1,000 donation and contributions from her peers at the College, Rosario has been able to raise $2,589 and avoid taking a leave of absence for the semester.
“The support I’ve gotten here is insane. I’m a freshman. It’s my first semester. I’ve only known some of these people for half a semester — September, October — and just the amount of support is insane, from CAs, from freshmen, from upperclassmen, from advisors,” Rosario said. “Everyone was so supportive and just trying to brainstorm and help me, so just the amount of assistance and support I’ve gotten here is what’s keeping me going.”
One other undocumented student anonymously reached out to Rosario after starting the fundraiser, proof that she’s not alone at the College. Now, Rosario hopes that future students in similar circumstances won’t have to go through what she did — and that financial aid, whether it be in the form of grants, loans or scholarships, is as accessible to undocumented students as it is to everyone else.
“I’m looking for some change, to start it locally and then broaden it out,” said Rosario, who has been contacted by coalitions like the New Jersey DREAM Act to share her story. “I’m just hoping that things change, and I want to become an advocate.”