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Eastern graduates first class of TheDream.US students

Published on June 18, 2020

Eastern graduates first class of TheDream.US students

2016 chohort
Eastern's inaugural TheDream.US class poses for a group photo in fall 2016.

Four years ago, Eastern Connecticut State University was one of only two universities nationwide selected to pilot a groundbreaking scholarship program in support of undocumented college students. In partnership with TheDream.US, Eastern enrolled its first cohort of “DREAMers,” who were brought to the United States as children and faced barriers to accessing a college education in their home states. Of the 47 students who started in fall 2016, 43 graduated this past May, and three more are on track to graduate in the coming fall semester. This pioneering cohort leaves behind a legacy of inclusion, academic excellence and civic engagement on Eastern’s campus.

TheDream.US is a privately funded program that awards scholarships to high-achieving undocumented youth from “locked out” states that either disqualify them from financial aid or in-state tuition, or prohibit them altogether from attending a public university or college in their home state. Through TheDream.US, “Opportunity Scholars” from locked-out states receive scholarships to cover tuition, room and board, while “National Scholars” receive a scholarship to cover tuition as Connecticut residents.

Eastern’s 2020 cohort of graduating Opportunity Scholars come from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Missouri, Wisconsin, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Louisiana. Several National Scholars from Connecticut also graduated.

“For any undocumented person, it’s hard not to be ashamed of your status,” said Vania Galicia ’20, an English major from Connecticut and a law school aspirant. “Most of my high school career, I thought I was the only undocumented person. When I came here and saw a community so supportive, with people in the same shoes, my mindset changed; it motivated me. Instead of hiding my status, I spoke about it, wrote about it. It was liberating.”

With an average overall GPA of 3.5 and a four-year graduation rate of 91 percent, the 2020 graduates — and more than 190 other DREAMers actively enrolled at Eastern — are among the university’s most talented students.

Members of the first cohort take a photo with TheDream.US Co-Founder Donald Graham (middle), President Elsa Nunez (right) and Mark Ojakian (left), president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, in 2016.

New Eastern students introduce themselves to Donald Graham, TheDream.US co-founder, in a special 2016 meeting.

TheDream.US Co-Founder Donald Graham addresses Eastern's first class of Opportunity and National Scholars.

Eastern's first cohort of Opportunity and National Scholars gathers for a Student Center luncheon shortly after their 2016 arrival to campus.

North Carolina-native Evelyn Lemus Silva ’20 majored in biology and was one of Eastern’s two 2020 Barnard Award recipients — the most prestigious undergraduate award bestowed by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system.

“Coming to Eastern as an undocumented student, with peers like myself, was the first time I felt welcomed,” said Lemus. “Being able to learn and study alongside professors, getting to know them and them getting to know me, helped me to do what I want to do.”

Lemus will soon begin a research assistantship at Stanford University where she will work in a lab focused on the gut microbiome—a research interest she developed while at Eastern. She aspires to attend medical school to become a medical doctor and research physician. “Today, I am who I am — academically, emotionally and socially — because of my experiences at Eastern.”

The 2020 graduating cohort of DREAMers emerged as leaders on and off campus. They served as residence assistants (RAs), held executive roles in the student government, founded organizations like Freedom at Eastern and capitalized on opportunities for student employment, internships and faculty-supported research. All of them volunteered at least 100 hours with the community over their four years, and the vast majority participated in student organizations.

“These students came to this campus in 2016 not realizing that they would be part of something so monumental and a change agent to the Eastern community,” said Maribel Sanchez, Eastern’s opportunity programs specialist.

“They have shined a light on how important and impactful a public liberal arts education really is. These students have talent that is beyond measure and would have gone unseen had it not been for TheDream.US scholarship. These funds have provided them the ability to look beyond the barrier of their immigration status and pursue their educational dreams.”

Pablo De Dios Perez ’20 majored in digital art with a minor in computer science. The North Carolina native found his calling through multiple clubs and the Center for Community Engagement (CCE). “I learned what it means to be a part of a community that accepts somebody different,” he said. “It doesn’t matter your status or your background; Eastern is an accepting place.”

As a student leader with the CCE, De Dios worked with local children, the elderly and people at homeless shelters. “All these communities helped me understand that we’re all a part of the same society.”

Vania Galicia

Pablo De Dios Perez

Evelyn Lemus Silva

Yineira Lopez

Juan Matiz

Yineira Lopez ’20 double majored in political science and sociology. The Georgia native served as the president of the Student Government Association (SGA) and aspires for a career in law, working as a paralegal focused on workers’ compensation and human rights.

“Eastern’s small campus allowed us to connect with other people and create a community of undocumented students,” she said. “Our needs and challenges were new to everyone, but the faculty, staff and administration were very supportive, and the students were willing to help us create a community.”

Juan Matiz ’20 majored in computer science and participated in Eastern’s on-campus internship with Cigna. After two semesters working as a cybersecurity intern, the Georgia native recently landed a position with the company. He hopes to become a cybersecurity penetration tester.

“My Eastern experience exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I never would have thought that I’d have the opportunity to be president of a club (College Democrats), form another club (Freedom at Eastern) and eventually end up working for a Fortune 500 company.”

During a 2016 visit to campus, TheDream.US Co-Founder Donald Graham said in a press conference, “Education is an American value; we should help every student who has worked hard. (These scholarships) will help immigrant students fulfill their dreams of obtaining a college education so they can better the lives of their families, communities and our nation. We are proud to partner with Eastern Connecticut State University… to give deserving students the opportunity for an affordable college education.”

TheDream.US is the nation’s largest college access and success program for DREAMers. Its inaugural Opportunity Scholarship program was piloted by Eastern Connecticut State University and Delaware State University in 2016. TheDream.US now works with more than 70 partner institutions, helping thousands of undocumented immigrant youth obtain a college education to advance their careers and give back to their communities. The Dream.US is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pershing Square Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, Robin Hood Foundation, The Coca-Cola Foundation, The PepsiCo Foundation and other philanthropists.

Written by Michael Rouleau