The Adsum Education Foundation — dedicated to leveling the educational playing field for undocumented students — granted a record high amount of more than $310,000 in college scholarships to 107 students in Santa Barbara County with help from its major donors.
Students receiving awards are high achievers who have done “just what American society taught them to do,” Adsum director Jonathan Wang said in opening remarks at the awards event held at Santa Barbara Center Library Faulker Gallery. “What separates us is a basic nine-digit number.”
Adsum — which translates to “I am here” in Latin — receives funds from The Santa Barbara Foundation, The Orfalea Foundation, and The Fund for Santa Barbara, among other donors. The organization has awarded more than 250 scholarships to undocumented students since it was created in 2010. At the time, its founders recognized an inequity in the county, where an estimated few thousand students live without immigration papers. This year, more than 160 students applied for a scholarship.
The average grade point average for high school student recipients this year was 4.03, according to Wang, and the grade point average was 3.10 for college recipients. Their family annual income on average was $28,070.
“We want all of our students to know there is a community behind them,” Wang said. Several dozen donors and politicians, including Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, Supervisor Salud Carbajal, as well as representatives from State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblymember Das Williams’s office were in the audience.
In the dimly lit room, a handful of students took turns sharing brief memories from their childhood, much of which was filled with fears most children in Santa Barbara never have to worry about. “About six years ago, my dad got deported,” one young woman said. “And that’s when everything took a sharp turn in my life.”
A second female student said, “I came into the U.S. in a car. The officer spoke to me. I had no clue of what he was saying … I was delighted once the car started moving because I knew we made it and a new life was ahead.”
Another student added, “All of us living in one room. In a way it was easier to feel safer. We all knew of our illegal status, and we lived in fear every day.”
In an interview after the presentation, Nick (not his real name) told me he is about to start his third year studying engineering at UCSB. As a student at Santa Ynez High School, Nick discovered Adsum when it was still a new program for undocumented students who are not eligible for federal aid. “No one knew about it,” Nick recalled.
The year Nick applied for college, Cal Grants — state funds that cover close to all the cost of tuition at a public university — became available for so-called AB 540 students. (AB 540 allows students without legal status to pay in-state tuition at public universities.) As part of its application, Adsum requires students to apply for Cal Grants. “Without that, I don’t know if I would have gone to college or not,” he said. Now actively involved in UCSB campus life, Nick has come a long way since he was a shy freshman at the relatively small high school in the valley.
When asked what advice he would give other undocumented high school students, Nick said, “I would encourage them to keep pushing. It’s easy to start becoming negative and think, ‘Why am I here?’ But if you want something, no one said it’s going to be easy.”