Aspiring Americans awards scholarships to undocumented Oklahomans

Akash Patel is the founder and executive director of Aspiring Americans. He is a 2014 graduate from OU who majored in political science and constitutional studies. Patel plans to attend law school and focus on public policy issues, such as education and immigration, and practice public interest law. 

Bryan Sandoval dreams of a career in aerospace engineering and hopes to someday land a job with Boeing or General Electric.

However, Sandoval worries about how to pay for college, especially since he is limited in the financial aid and scholarships he can apply for because of his immigration status. The 18-year-old is an undocumented student.

But a $3,000 scholarship from Aspiring Americans, a nonprofit in Oklahoma City, has given Sandoval’s confidence and college plans a boost. He will use the money to help pay for expenses when he attends the University of Oklahoma this fall.

“It was just amazing,” he said about hearing that he was a recipient. “I’m so grateful for the scholarship.”

Aspiring Americans is an organization that provides scholarships for students graduating from high school who do not qualify for state or federal assistance because of their immigration status, grants for immigration applications of Oklahoma students and educational presentations that focus on resources for immigrant students and families.

Aspiring Americans was started a year ago by Akash Patel, executive director of the organization and a 2014 graduate from OU.

Sandoval, who attends ASTEC Charter High School in Oklahoma City, is one of four students receiving money from the organization’s first spring scholarships. The other recipients are Ruth Cruces from Santa Fe South High School in Oklahoma City, who is planning to attend OU; Heily Maldonado from Dove Science Academy in Oklahoma City; and Jocelyn Aldana from Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City.

More than 50 students applied for the scholarship from Oklahoma and Arkansas, Patel said.

A scholarship committee reviewed the applicants and considered their extracurricular activities, academic achievements, financial needs and how proactive the students were about seeking opportunities to better themselves or improve their circumstances, Patel said.

“The best day I’ve ever had working with Aspiring Americans was the day I told the students they received scholarships,” Patel said. “It was such an amazing privilege for me and Aspiring Americans to be one part of this success for them.”

The scholarship program is one aspect of the organization’s work. Aspiring Americans also offers legal assistance – in partnership with Dream Act Oklahoma — to help families with applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Known as DACA, the program provides temporary relief from deportation and a two-year work permit to qualifying young adults ages 15 to 30 who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, according to information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

 

A personal mission

Patel, 23, said Aspiring Americans started “by accident.”

He was doing research for his senior thesis at OU with a focus on undocumented students in Oklahoma. Patel discovered that there are about 65,000 undocumented immigrant high school students in the U.S. who graduate from high school every year. Of those students, about 7.5 percent make it to college.

Patel wanted to know what happens to the 92.5 percent.

He sent out anonymous surveys to students in Oklahoma City to get a sense of how their undocumented status impacted their educational plans. Some students reported feeling hopeless and dropping out of school because they didn’t believe they would be able to use their diploma, while others feared detention and deportation, Patel said.

Patel was motivated to help undocumented students learn about resources to help them finish high school and go to college. That led him to start the Aspiring Americans organization and to work with educators, students and their families to provide them with information.

He said one of the reasons that Aspiring Americans focuses on undocumented students is because they are “at least as passionate, intelligent and capable as their native peers. They just start out at a huge disadvantage.”

“There is no reason not to empower them to succeed. When a student is enabled to thrive, regardless of where they come from, the whole community benefits from his or her talents,” Patel said.

His passion for the work also has a personal connection.

Patel said he spent most of his life as an undocumented student. His parents came to the U.S. from London when he was about 15 months old. Their visitor visas expired before they were approved for their green cards.

“Often, families are told that ‘unexpected government delays’ postpone normal application procedures. As a result, many families fall out of status while trying to petition for legal residence,” he said.

Patel got a green card before graduating from high school, and he and his parents are expected to complete the process to become U.S. citizens by the end of this summer. Overall, Patel said it has taken 21 years for him and his parents to become U.S. citizens.

His sister’s experiences, though, is what fuels Patel’s work.

Nisha Patel “aged out” of the green card application process since she turned 21 before the family obtained their residency, Patel said. She is currently undocumented but has graduated from college. Through enrollment in the DACA program, Nisha Patel is now working toward a doctorate in microbiology from OU, her brother said.

He wants other undocumented students to know that going to college can be a reality for them.

“People need to know this is possible,” Patel said. For all the Nishas out there, that’s why I do this.”

Opening up opportunities

The scholarship recipients said the money gives them motivation and hope for their future.

Sandoval said going to college has been a goal for him. His parents didn’t finish school, and Sandoval said that has served as a motivation for him to do his best with the educational opportunities he has. He also is the oldest of three children and wants to set an example for his siblings.

Sandoval is from Mexico and moved to the U.S. with his family 15 years ago. He is also enrolled in the DACA program.

He said one of his biggest concerns as an undocumented student is finding the money to afford college. Sandoval said he realizes that financial assistance will be limited for him so he’s applying for any scholarships he can. He also works at a Krispy Kreme to earn extra money.

Sandoval said receiving the scholarship from Aspiring Americans excites him and gives him reassurance.

“I knew that it was going to help me tremendously paying for my tuition and books,” he said. “Knowing that I have that amount to help me out gives me a lot of leeway and takes off the stress. Now I’m able to think more positive about it. That really gets me excited and that really means a lot to me.”

A spokesman for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education said a person who cannot provide valid documentation of U.S. nationality or of an immigration status permitting study at a postsecondary institution, but who graduated from an Oklahoma public or private high school and who resided with a parent or legal guardian while attending classes at an Oklahoma public or private high school for at least two years prior to graduation, may be eligible for enrollment and resident tuition by filing an affidavit of intent when they submit an application.

Sandoval said OU was one of his first choices for college. He spent time on the campus two summers ago in an engineering program.

“I really like the atmosphere,” he said. “We got to see how it was to be a student and living in the dorms. It just got me hooked.”

Sandoval said he’s nervous and excited about starting college. “I’m really pumped up about it. I know I should try my best to make good experiences and help others.”

His future plans are to get his master’s degree, design airplanes and turbines and become a U.S. citizen. Sandoval also is inspired to start a nonprofit to help more students get involved in the engineering field.

Cruces, 18, plans to attend OU and major in radiological therapy and go into pre-med.

“This scholarship gives me hope and is another stepping stone in my long road to being a doctor,” Cruces said in an email. “This scholarship will help my future.”

Aldana, 19, is another scholarship recipient and said she is still overwhelmed when thinking about the support she’s received from Patel and Aspiring Americans.

“When you are struggling with your immigration status it’s hard to find organizations that can support you and give you their trust,” Aldana said in an email. “I am so thankful to Akash and his team because they not only gave me an opportunity but also gave me their trust, and knowing that someone supports your dreams is such an amazing feeling.”

Her plans are to attend Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City and become a registered nurse.

Maldonado said she also is grateful to Aspiring Americans and “it is quite humbling knowing that they believe in me.” The 17-year-old is still deciding on where she is going to college but aspires to become a neurosurgeon.

“It is a challenge trying to find scholarships and support for college while being an undocumented student but this organization has not only provided me help financially but also with advice to concerns about my future,” Maldonado said.

Patel said he regularly hears stories from undocumented students, like those of the scholarship recipients, that compel him to act on their behalf and to help other students in similar situations. It’s also one of the reasons why he believes the work done by Aspiring Americans is so important.

“The help that we can provide now makes all the difference in whether they can advance their education or not,” he said. “Their stories inspire me to make that possible for them.”

About Aspiring Americans:

What it is:

An organization that offers a scholarship program; grants to cover the cost of immigration applications for students enrolled in high school or college; free training for educators on how to empower and support undocumented high school students; and legal clinics and forums, in partnership with Dream Act Oklahoma, to help families with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications.

When it began:

Aspiring Americans was started a year ago by Akash Patel, a 2014 graduate from OU.

The organization is a fiscally sponsored project of Communities Foundation of Oklahoma. Patel said the organization received its fiscal sponsorship in February 2014 and became fully operational in August of 2014.

“Since that time, we have raised $100,000 in donations, grants and in-kind resources, with the help of partners like Dream Act Oklahoma, and we trained over 1,000 educators and administrators across central Oklahoma and provided 14 grants and scholarships to students,” he said.

New developments:

Patel said Aspiring Americans will soon merge in the upcoming months with Scissortail Community Development Corp.

“The goal was always for Aspiring Americans to be a part of something bigger than itself,” he said.

Scissortail Community Development Corp. seeks to help underserved communities and low- income families. The nonprofit’s areas of focus include economic development, workforce development, health care and housing, said Renee Porter, chief executive officer of the organization.

Another focus area is education, including providing information and resources to parents for education choice issues in Oklahoma, and outreach to the Hispanic community, Porter said.

Porter said she believes the work that has been done by Patel and Aspiring Americans has and will continue to positively impact students and families.

“What impresses me about Aspiring Americans is that they are reaching students and helping them to continue with their education,” she said. “Through education, one can change the trajectory of your ability to provide for yourself and your family.”

Porter anticipates that the merger with the organizations will happen this summer. Her organization is also relocating from its Norman office to Plaza Mayor at the Crossroads, the former Crossroads Mall in Oklahoma City.

Patel said he believes that having Scissortail Community Development Corp. as the umbrella organization for Aspiring Americans can help further his organization’s work in Oklahoma and assist more students and families.

Websites: www.aspiringamericans.org and www.scissortailcdc.org