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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

International

How one group is helping undocumented students


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Youth Empowerment Alliance President Yanhel Ponce Zuniga is hoping to reach undocumented students and help them through the college application process. | Pablo Milanese/The Cougar

For most students who are Texas residents, the concept of in-state tuition versus out-of-state tuition is one that’s not given much thought. However, for students like Yanhel Ponce Zuniga, an information systems senior originally from Mexico, the disparity was devastating and almost cost her her education.

“That really made me realize how I was seen on paper,” Zuniga said. “I struggled because I didn’t really know where, or how, to get the documentation for me to be considered a Texas resident.”

Yanhel spent most of her life in the U.S., but since she was born in Mexico, she is labeled undocumented. Unfortunately, because of this, she had to register as an international student. According to the UH financial aid department, fixed tuition for in-state residents is $4,855 per term. For non-residents, which include international students, the rate is $12,205 per term.

“In-state tuition is significantly lower than out-of-state tuition, but we are required to charge the appropriate rate by law,” University Bursar Andy Startz said. “(But), a student is a student. We are going to help them all the same.”

Zuniga was previously recognized as an international student and would’ve been charged the higher tuition fee. After some research, Zuniga found an affidavit form and a residence questionnaire that granted her eligibility by promising that an undocumented student will file to become a permanent resident of the U.S. as soon as they can.

“These forms were my golden tickets to be correctly categorized as a Texas resident for tuition purposes,” Zuniga said.

In an effort to help other undocumented students avoid the higher tuition rates for out of state residents, Zuniga became president of the Youth Empowerment Alliance, a student-led organization that provides support and resources to undocumented students at UH and local high schools.

“We try to empower UH students through our local actions, open discussions at our general meetings and by providing a safe space for undocumented Coogs,” Zuniga said.

Youth Empowerment Alliance hosts outreach events as part of the Dream Empowerment Educational Program. YEA members go to high schools in the Houston area and educate students about the college application process because the process for undocumented students is different, lengthy and often overwhelming. 

Zuniga said YEA walks high school students through the college admission process and helps them learn the steps that need to be taken in order to be categorized as an in-state Texas resident.

The financial aid process is also included, and students are guided through the Texas Application for State Financial Aid application that is designed for those specific students under HB1403.

HB1403, also known as the Texas DREAM Act, grants undocumented students access to in-state tuition rates at Texas public institutions of higher education and financial aid. The group’s work to keep the bill is just one example of how they are helping international students gain access to education. 

“Being an immigrant is not easy because, when you are a student in high school, it’s hard to get scholarships and even get accepted to UH, because they consider you as an international student,” supply chain management junior and YEA Vice President Jesus Trevino said. 

YEA is also made up of members who are U.S. residents called allies, they are students who support undocumented students called dreamers. Business finance sophomore Neil Hernandez is the historian for YEA and is also an ally.

“We are a fairly young organization of about three years, but we’ve achieved a great amount of things within that small window of time,” Hernandez said. 

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion hosts training for staff members so they can know what undocumented students struggle with.

Despite their efforts, Trevino said that the financial aid office and the international office remain uncommunicative. 

“The financial aid office is committed to all students at UH,” Scott Moore, interim executive director for Scholarships and Financial Aid, said. “We care about our student population and are always striving to improve services to our students.”

YEA continues to try to educate high school students about this issue, reaching about 30 students this semester. The group is hopeful they will reach their goal of 50 students and 10 educators by the end of the fall semester. 

Zuniga said she hopes YEA will continue to grow and that more students will become interested in helping undocumented students.

“There are still a lot of undocumented students at UH that live in fear and in the shadows,” Zuniga said. “They do not want to share with anyone of their status out of fear they will put themselves or their families in danger. The UH community should all work towards becoming effective allies to undocumented students and provide support when needed.” 

Hernandez believes that all students should have the opportunity of pursuing a higher education after high school graduation, and is hopeful YEA will be able to help more students in the future. 

“They want the opportunity to provide a better life for their families,” Hernandez said. “They are a constant reminder of why our families came to this country in the first place.” 

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