Gloria Montiel, Ed.M.’11, can’t recall the first time she heard about a place called Harvard, but from the sixth grade on, she could dream of nothing else.
Harvard offered a generous scholarship but still pegged her required contribution at $3,000 a year – a small amount to some, but not to a struggling, undocumented family ineligible for a Pell grant, work study, or federal loans
“I was sure I was going to go there,” says Montiel, who set about figuring out how. At the top of her class in eighth grade, she learned of a program that places children of color in elite prep schools. But her school counselor revealed a devastating truth: Montiel couldn’t apply. “At that moment, I realized that all this time, everything I had been doing toward my goals – this was going to become a problem,” Montiel recalls.
This was her status as an undocumented immigrant. When she was eight, Montiel’s parents crossed the border from Mexico and settled in Santa Ana, California, where Montiel established herself as a serious student in the local schools. It had never occurred to her that something about her identity would hurl into her path an insurmountable obstacle.
From that painful moment in the counselor’s office to this day, Montiel’s status is never out of mind. Like the estimated 65,000 or more undocumented students who graduate high school each year into uncertain futures, the reminders of their precarious situation are constant. For those who hope to go onto college, one of the most daunting challenges is how to pay for it since their families typically can’t help and their immigration statuses preclude any federal financial aid.
In high school, Montiel couldn’t get a job without a social security card, and her parents – also undocumented – worked in a restaurant for under-the-table wages. Her dream seemed to be receding. When she was a freshman, a friend asked Montiel why she was in upper-level math.
“I said, ‘I want to go to Harvard,’ and she said, ‘Don’t you know Mexican girls don’t go to Harvard?’ I went into the bathroom and started crying. It was a reminder that I’d have to pull off a miracle.” The next year, the school valedictorian, one of Montiel’s best friends, received a prestigious Regents Scholarship to attend a University of California school – which was rescinded because he was undocumented.
Some apply for private loans through banks
But when Montiel learned of Harvard’s need-blind admissions policy, she sent in an application, along with applications to local colleges that she might, perhaps, be able to afford. When Montiel received her Harvard acceptance letter, “I just started jumping up and down,” she recalls. “It was my payday loans Michigan hope that I wouldn’t have to worry about finances, and I could finally just focus on studying.”
Montiel scraped up money to cover the cost by babysitting. Once at Harvard, unable to afford travel, she spent winter and other breaks far from her family in the near-empty dorm and didn’t tell her roommates or anyone about her status.
“At that time, the national discourse was dominated very much by conservatives who used terms like ‘illegal,'” she says. “It would have taken so much emotional preparation for me to say this is my situation, especially when they couldn’t help me at all, that I wasn’t ready to share with them.” It was an often-lonely existence; only months before graduation did she meet another undocumented undergraduate.
Montiel’s status was outed soon enough. Credentialed to teach through the Harvard Undergraduate Teacher Education Program (UTEP), she decided to apply to the Ed School but, reluctant to reveal her status, she waited too long to apply for school-based scholarships. The Ed School, like most graduate schools, has a limited financial aid budget, which can result in a gap for some students. Most students at the graduate level can offset that gap by applying for federal loans like the Perkins or working on campus through the federal work study program. International students often receive scholarships and loans available in their home country.