DACA Gave Robert a Chance

The snow was just beginning to melt in March 2016 when I got a phone call from Robert, a student in his second year at University of Connecticut-Stamford.  He told me UCONN wasn’t going to continue his scholarship, and he could not afford to go college without financial assistance.  Robert chose to go to UCONN because, like other undocumented students, he did not qualify for US Government or Connecticut funded college loans.  This forced him to live at home and cover his tuition costs with the money he earned working at CVS.  Robert is a student with The Matthew Gaffney Foundation and he was calling us for advice.

As a child in an undocumented family, Robert learned to keep his family’s status a secret, and, like most undocumented kids, Robert lived in the shadows.   In 2010 President Obama reintroduced the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors).  The DREAM Act would grant a path to citizenship to Robert if he graduated from college. The DREAM Act never passed, however, in 2012 the Obama administration created DACA.  It grants deferred deportation to people under 31 who came to the U.S. under the age of 16 and meet other criteria.  If you apply and qualify for DACA, you’re allowed to be in the U.S. legally, apply for employment authorization, receive a Social Security number, and a driver’s license in most states.

Robert struggled with the idea of identifying himself and his family, but he knew with DACA he could have a job and earn money for school.  I have learned, through experience, a few top schools and some Ivy Leagues do accept DACA students because these schools cover students’ “designated need” without using government money.  Unfortunately, when Robert applied to college, he was not accepted to a school that had their own resources.  Now that his scholarship was taken away, Robert knew that he would have to take time off from school to earn the money for tuition.  I knew Robert had a strong work ethic and was in excellent academic standing, so I suggested he try to apply as a transfer student.

Early last spring, Swarthmore College announced they were accepting undocumented students.  I knew that Robert was qualified and encouraged him to apply.  Robert was placed on a wait list but continued to email the director of admission confirming his interest in the school.  It was the middle of June before he got a phone call asking if he was still interested in transferring.  Within hours Robert’s life changed from the prospect of working years at CVS just to be able to finish at UCONN, to receiving a full scholarship from a prestigious college.

I received an email from Robert this week.   Robert decided he wanted to major in Psychology and Education.  Swarthmore arranged for him to study at Harvard this semester and in August, he will be at University of Californian-Santa Cruz working as a teaching assistant through a program offered by Johns Hopkins University.  “I have great news,” Robert writes, “I found out yesterday that Swarthmore accepted 21 DACA students into the class of 2021.  It is so exciting; Swarthmore is opening its doors and welcoming undocumented students.”

Jonathan & Isaiah-March 20, 2017

… 14% of community college students are homeless…”  (Washington Post-3/15/17, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel).

How do kids survive when they are college age and homeless?  Unfortunately, many of these students were in foster care and have to work to pay college tuition.

When the Matthew Gaffney Foundation met Jonathan, he was living with a friend; his grandmother had just died and Jonathan had nowhere to go.  Jonathan was orphaned at five years old when his father was convicted of killing his mother.  Now sixteen, Jonathan had no guardian and no future.

We worked with Jonathan to get his SAT test scores up and to make sure he was taking competitive courses.  Jonathan played football, but his game wasn’t strong enough to get recruited to play in college.   He applied to the University of Vermont and was accepted.  His financial aid package did not cover all his “demonstrated need.”  UVM gave him scholarships and government loans, but he still had to come up with a $10,000 “family contribution.”

I called UVM’s financial aid office to explain that Jonathan had “no family” and asked for a loan to cover the family contribution.  The school said they could not give him a loan because he had no assets.  They were right.  Jonathan’s only assets were his grandmother’s car and her social security payments.  However, he would lose the social security benefits when he turned 18.  Once again, Jonathan faced homelessness.

Jonathan was an affable young man.  When it became obvious that he could not afford to go to UVM, members of the New Canaan, CT community came together to offer Jonathan financial support for the remaining $10,000; he was grateful but was uncomfortable about the offer.  The Gaffney Foundation knew there were other colleges who could afford to give Jonathan better financial support, but by that time, colleges had already accepted their in-coming freshman class.  This meant that he would have to attend a 5th year at a boarding school and reapply to college in the fall.

Jonathan took the advice of his football coach, Lou Marinelli and applied to Bridgeton Academy in Maine. Bridgeton is an all boys academy devoted to athletes who need another year of high school so they can mature physically and academically.  Bridgeton gave Jonathan a job in the admission office to help him with spending money and a $22,000 scholarship.  This meant that we had to find another $22,000 in scholarships in order for Jonathan to finish the year.

Coach Marinelli and the Gaffney Foundation worked tirelessly to come up with the tuition.  By January, The New Canaan Community Fund together with scholarships from New Canaan High School met his financial need.  Finally, Jonathan was going to be able to graduate from Bridgeton.

Jonathan applied to St Lawrence University and was accepted with a handsome financial aid package.  However, now he did not have is grandmother’s social security payments, and he was still basically homeless.  He applied for a summer position as a counselor at Camp Kiev and in the following September, he attended St. Lawrence University.


The following year we met Isaiah.  His mother was a crack cocaine addict.  When Isaiah was five, his mother’s boyfriend took Isaiah and his two sisters in the dark of night to stay at his mother’s house for safety.  Eventually the state intervened and the children were sent to foster care.  Isaiah did well in Norwalk, CT public school, but he was transformed into a great student when he met us and began to believe he could actually go to college.  Isaiah also applied to St Lawrence University, but when he filled out his FASA financial aid form, he had to use his foster parent’s financial information.  Even though Isaiah’s foster parents were not responsible for his education, they were still his legal guardians and according to financial aid rules, their assets were considered to be available to Isaiah.

When Isaiah received his acceptance to St Lawrence, using his foster parent’s financial information, he realized that he could not afford the $20,000 “family contribution.”  But when the Gaffney Foundation reviewed his file with his guidance counselor, we discovered that Isaiah turned 18 in January, and therefore, he was legally on his own.  Isaiah’s mother was still living in New York City.  Now Isaiah was able to use her financial information for his FAFSA form.  We asked the financial aid officer at St Lawrence to reconsider his application, and they awarded him an excellent aid package.

Jonathan and Isaiah no longer worry about becoming homeless.  They have both graduated from St Lawrence.  Isaiah is working in a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.   Jonathan is teaching fifth grade in Philadelphia’s inner city.  He is taking graduate courses in Education at Drexel University.  “I understand what these kids are going through,” he said.  “It is my way of giving back.”

About Margaret Benedict

Margaret Gaffney Benedict, Ph.D.

For the past ten years, I have helped over 200 students gain acceptance to some of the top schools in the country such as: Bates, Columbia, Cornell, Franklin & Marshall, Georgetown, Lehigh, Harvard, Princeton, UPENN, Trinity, Williams, Yale and others.  I am a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

As a former college professor and founder of both College Preparation Services (www.collprep.com) and The Matthew Gaffney Foundation (www.gaffneyfoundation.com), I have a unique perspective on college applicants and the challenges they face with the college admissions process.  College Preparation Services is a private consulting business; The Matthew Gaffney Foundation provides college admissions assistance to first generation students who are academically successful and qualify for free lunch in school.

The purpose of this blog is to share observations about the emerging trends in today’s college admissions.  The blog will share information about key topics such as the changing profile of students accepted at top colleges as well as the recent trends in financial aid and who qualifies.  The blog will also share some of my students’ success stories in order to celebrate their achievements and to inspire others to achieve their own dreams.

Veronica-March 9, 2017

“I will never know how to thank you for what you have given me.  When I first met you, I did not know if college was a possibility for me.  You were the first person to tell me that I could go to college…  I would have never received such a great education if it were not for you and the Matthew Gaffney Foundation.  You taught me not only that my financial situation does not define my intelligence but also that the opportunities out there are endless.” Veronica, 2015 

Hold Fast to Your Dreams, co-authored by Beth Zalsoff and Joshua Steckel, a college counselor in Brooklyn follows ten students from Brooklyn who want to get out of poverty and were accepted into college.   Many of the students featured in this book do not finish college.  Steckel suggests that the reasons these students fail to get out of poverty is:

Colleges do not give appropriate financial aid.

Students have problems adjusting to traditionally white colleges that are often on an unfamiliar rural campus.

Students lack the support from their families who feel abandoned.

Jason De Parle, educational contributor to the New York Times, followed three students from Galveston, Texas on their college quest.  In his article, For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in Hard Fall, De Pearle writes,”…their stories seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.”  DeParle’s study validated Steckel’s.  Each supported the premise that these students fail, because they do not assimilate well outside their nurturing environment.

Despite the continuing press written about the failures of this socio-economic group, top colleges are actively seeking out these students to increase diversity on campus.  In May 2016, Frank Bruni’s article, Who gains From College Diversity? defends Amherst’s and other top college’s admission policies when he writes, “It is a win for America and its imperiled promise of social mobility.”  Bruni quotes, Biddy Martin, President of Amherst College, “Opportunity for people from every conceivable background is essential to a functioning democracy, and in this country we’re not providing enough of it.”

Bruni’s article was met with opinion letters in support from academics like Alison Byerly, President of Lafayette College, who wrote, “Providing a rich educational environment in which students live with and learn from a diverse range of peers requires investment from the entire community.”  In contrast, other comments were less supportive, like this one from Washington D.C.  “Sure you can let them in and prop them up, but they’re just… there.  I’ve noticed these sorts of articles never mention the most popular major of these low income students, graduating GPA’s, 4-year graduation rates, or any salary data, why not?”

Our Gaffney Foundation student, Veronica grew up in Norwalk, Ct.  Her mother is a single parent and cleans houses for a living.  Veronica wrote with pride about her mother in her college essay: “Sometimes when I help my mother, we sit on the patio after work and imagine what it would be like to live there.”  Veronica graduated in four years from Franklin and Marshall College in 2015.  She went on to pursue a Masters in Health Sciences from Johns Hopkins.  She is currently employed at Columbia University Hospital and has just been accepted to five medical schools.  This blog will continue to tell the success stories of the students in the Matthew Gaffney Foundation.  Gaffney students are all first generation to go to college and qualify for free lunch in school.