NAVIGATE seeks to widen higher education path for undocumented students


A “dreamer” and a “role model”: those are the phrases Carlos* most frequently uses to describe himself. “Connector” seems a worthy addition to that list.

Carlos’s work with NAVIGATE MN, an organization that helps immigrant students, regardless of immigration status, pursue their higher education goals, has him connecting with high school students, parents, teachers and counselors. Connecting was also a recurring theme during a recent two-hour exchange at South Minneapolis’s Common Roots Café.

Smart, personable, and ambitious, Carlos’s commitment to achieving a better life for himself and his 10-year-brother, who lives in Mexico with his mother, extends to a wider community. One way he contributes is through his work for NAVIGATE, giving presentations at Twin Cities metro area schools and some churches. He also volunteers at Accountability Minnesota, preparing taxes for low-income people.

Pursuing the “American Dream”

For Carlos, leaving Mexico for the United States at age 18 was his path to an education and a brighter future. His mother, with two years of high school education, wanted to see her children aspire for more. So, nearly seven years ago, Carlos left home, speaking no English. What he carried with him was a strong desire for education. “I came because of school and to pursue the American Dream of bettering myself,” he explains.

What is the DREAM Act?

The DREAM Act is federal legislation that would help young immigrants who have grown up in the United States without visas. While various versions have been introduced in Congress over the years, the DREAM Act provisions generally apply to young people who entered the United States at age 15 or younger, have lived in the U.S. for five years, have graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED or have been admitted to a college or university, are between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application, and can demonstrate good moral character. They would be able to apply for conditional permanent residency and would be granted permanent residency after 5 1/2 years, if they have completed two years of higher education or military service.

Immigration law can only be changed by Congress, not by state legislatures. “State DREAM Acts” are laws permitting certain undocumented students who have attended and graduated from a state’s primary and secondary schools to pay the same tuition as their classmates at public institutions of higher education. Twelve states have passed these laws: California, Texas, New York, Utah, Washington, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Connecticut.

Now, fluent in English, Carlos is in his last semester at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where he has been studying accounting. His plan is to transfer to a four-year university, earn his accounting degree and minor in finance. “My dream is to become a Certified Public Accountant,” he says.

“So many undocumented Latino students don’t have the resources or the information to achieve their goals,” Carlos observes. “Either that, or they have misleading information.” As a result, there’s a huge dropout rate among Latino high school students, “who face so many barriers that they’re not inspired to keep going.” His role is to tell students about available resources, and to talk with school personnel and parents.

Because hope is the one thing that’s in shortest supply, Carlos prides himself on serving as a role model. One of the most rewarding parts of Carlos’s work with NAVIGATE is when students approach him after a presentation, and he makes a connection, face-to-face. Students may want to talk more, in person. Sometimes they’ll request his email address. “I know what they’re experiencing and the pressures they feel. They need someone to look up to.” Carlos is the first in his family to attend college.

Carlos also conveys a simple message to parents: “The most wonderful thing you can do for your child is give them an education.” Yet, he knows that immigrant parents often carry their own sets of fear. “Often they are scared to ask for help.”

Keeping the DREAM Act Alive

NAVIGATE has worked to garner support for the federal DREAM Act. If passed, the legislation would help provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant students who have lived in the United States since childhood, thus allowing them to attend college or enlist in the military. Carlos expresses disappointment that the DREAM Act failed to pass in this session on a close vote, but is encouraged by the amount of organizing and protesting that have taken place recently, especially in California, Arizona, and Chicago. He hopes the legislation will come up for another vote sooner, rather than later, and is gratified by President Obama’s support.

As things stand, undocumented immigrant students have limited access to funding for college. They cannot receive financial aid or college loans, and must pay high, non-resident tuition. Carlos explains that those who do attend college end up paying their own way or receiving scholarships from private foundations. As tuition and other costs spike, paying for college is becoming increasingly challenging.

Note: Although NAVIGATE works with other immigrant populations, Carlos says, it targets the Latino community. The National College Access Network (NCAN)  and Minnesota College Access Network (MCAN) work with a broader range of immigrant and minority students.

Finding a Home in Minnesota

Although Carlos sees a bright future for himself, things weren’t easy when he arrived in the U.S. Not only did he lack English skills, but he soon discovered that gang activity was rampant in the part of California where he landed to be with relatives. There were curfews, which restricted his sense of freedom, and he didn’t feel safe. As a result, he left after four months, opting to try Minnesota, home to two uncles at the time. “That experience wasn’t wonderful either,” he recalls. It soon became clear that he and the uncle he lived with had different values around education, work, and giving back to the community. “He was obsessed with material stuff, and thought that school was a waste of money.”

Carlos worked hard, made friends, and moved on. He says he’s happy with his decision to make Minnesota home. “I love Minnesota even in the winter.” He snowboards during winter and plays golf in summer. “Some people might think I’ve become too Americanized,” he laughs. As for Minnesotans, he finds most to be “very friendly and open-minded about different cultures.” He says he’s been impressed by how many have volunteered or worked in other countries, including his girlfriend.   

While Carlos says he mostly takes it in stride, there are settings where he notices subtle looks directed at him—the kinds of looks that say, “What are you doing here?” One is when he attends the theatre, all dressed up. Others occur during trips to small town Northern Minnesota, where he and his girlfriend sometimes visit her relatives. He’ll get more looks there, even on trips to the supermarket. Carlos thinks that there are a number of assumptions behind the looks, including about his proficiency with English, and the work he does. He adds that having a dog to walk in his own mostly white neighborhood, has helped break down barriers there.

Carlos lives in North Minneapolis, near Robbinsdale, with his girlfriend, whom he calls “an inspiration.” The couple met six years ago, on the 4th of July, and they plan to marry. A native Minnesotan, she studied in Ecuador and Mexico, and is working on her Master’s degree at Hamline University to become an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher. Carlos says that one of his main goals is to be at the same educational and professional level as her.

Helping Carlos achieve his goals are the scholarships and internships he’s been awarded, including a Page Scholarship through the Page Education Foundation. He notes that relatively few of those go to Latino students. He’s also the recipient of an MCTC Foundation Scholarship, and an accounting internship through the Headwaters Foundation for Justice.    

Breaking Down Barriers

At the end of the two-hour exchange at Common Roots, Carlos expresses concern about how people’s reliance on cell phones, email, and social media impacts the quality of human interactions. He talks about “what we lose when we’re not able to look into the other person’s eyes.” Face-to-face conversations, he says, can be one of the best ways to break down barriers “because people come to see that we’re all more alike than we are different,” including when it comes to our common immigrant roots.

Carlos says that people’s minds about immigrants will begin to shift as immigrants receive more education and come to be thought of as “important contributors to society.” He cites studies that show that Minnesota’s future workforce will depend on more immigrants. “Being better educated is how immigrants will come to be seen as equals,” he says, instead of being just “them,” the “other” or “aliens.”

Carlos’s hope is that by sharing his story, he will help others “to see things in a different way, through the eyes of a Mexican guy who’s trying to achieve his goals by working hard, doing the right thing, breaking down barriers, and giving back to his community.”

*At his request, Carlos is identified only by his first name.