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Eastern is top university for ‘Opportunity Scholars’

Published on July 15, 2021

Eastern is top university for ‘Opportunity Scholars’

TheDream.US program provides full scholarships to undocumented students


Since TheDream.US started its groundbreaking scholarship program to support undocumented students in 2016, it has relied on five institutions nationwide to host more than 600 Opportunity Scholars. Eastern Connecticut State University has emerged as the top institution for TheDream.US, enrolling more than 200 Opportunity Scholars from “locked-out” states that prevent them from attending college due to their immigration status.

TheDream.USThese students are known as “Dreamers”— immigrant youth who came to the United States as children without documentation.

Eastern was selected as one of the original two institutions to pilot the privately funded scholarship program, along with Delaware State University. Opportunity Scholarships cover room, board and tuition for out-of-state students, whereas TheDream.US’ National Scholarship program covers tuition for in-state students who are undocumented.

Donald Graham
Donald Graham, founder of TheDream.US, speaks with scholarship recipients. TheDream.US funds the Opportunity Scholarship and National Scholarship programs.

Eastern’s first class of Dreamers — 43 students — graduated in 2020, and 42 more received their diplomas this past May. Eastern will welcome another 39 Opportunity Scholars to campus in the coming fall semester, bringing the number of current students to 140.

“Our Dreamers feel so lucky that Eastern became their college,” said Donald Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post and founder of TheDream.US. “Eastern was one of the first two college partners in our Opportunity Scholarship Program. With the strongest possible support from President Elsa Núñez and Eastern faculty, we will have enrolled 224 Dreamers in Willimantic by this fall 2021, with more to come. They have loved it; in years to come, they will be among the university’s most loyal alumni.”

Nour Kalbouneh

The majority of Opportunity Scholars come from Georgia and North Carolina (approximately 65 percent), with the remaining from other Southern and Midwestern states that either exclude undocumented students from receiving financial aid or in-state tuition, or bar them entirely from enrolling.

“I am grateful for the unique opportunity provided to me and others by the collaboration of TheDream.US and Eastern,” said Nour Kalbouneh ’21, a political science major from Wisconsin who was elected senior class president. “As an undocumented individual, I was denied the opportunity to attend college in my home state, and Eastern’s partnership with the Dream.US gave me a chance that has been denied to thousands of individuals elsewhere.”

Kalbouneh is preparing for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and aspires to become an attorney working in advocacy and human rights.

With an average GPA of 3.4 and an overall persistence rate of 96 percent, Opportunity Scholars are among the most talented students not only at Eastern, but at each of the institutions that host them. They also gravitate to some of the universities’ most demanding majors. More than 50 percent are in STEM and healthcare/medical fields. Other popular fields include the social sciences (18 percent) and business (13 percent).

Evelyn Lemus

North Carolina native Evelyn Lemus Silva ’20 is a microbiology and immunology life science research professional at Stanford University. The biology major was one of two Eastern students to receive the 2020 Barnard Award — 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. Today, I am who I am — academically, emotionally, socially — because of my experiences at Eastern.”

Jafet Aparicio Santos ’21, also from North Carolina, is a data engineer at Travelers Insurance. The computer science and mathematics double major was also a member of Eastern’s Honors Program, as well as a participant in Eastern’s on-campus internship program with Cigna. 

Jafet Aparicio Santos

“I knew that I wanted a career in technology and data,” said Aparicio Santos. “Eastern's curriculum and supportive professors prepared me for the position I hold today. I will forever be thankful to TheDream.US for allowing me to pursue this ambition and graduate from college.”

DREAMers are among Eastern’s most engaged students on campus, serving as residence assistants, participating in student organizations, volunteering in the community, holding on-campus jobs and conducting faculty-supported research at higher rates than the average student.

“I could not be prouder of a group of students on our campus than the students funded by TheDream.US,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “Our Opportunity and National Scholars combine personal determination and social consciousness with a grace and quiet confidence that has added immeasurably to our campus environment.  They are well on their way to being some of our nation’s most impactful young leaders. We applaud these student scholars and we thank our partners at TheDream.US for supporting them.”

Written by Michael Rouleau