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With heart and money, Silicon Valley aids undocumented students

Talented students 'banished' through no fault of their own, are getting help, says Palm founder

Some big names in Silicon Valley's tech community are helping a group of talented, young students who are victims of circumstance and politics.

They are undocumented students brought to this country illegally. In many cases they came to America as young children, even as infants, with no choice in the matter and raised as Americans.

This country is their home.

But as young adults, they are in limbo. They are unable to work legally, have no clear pathway to permanent residency, and face difficulty in financing their education because of their immigration status.

"We are essentially punishing the kids for the actions of their parents; they didn't do anything wrong," said Jeffrey Hawkins, founder of Palm Computing, who is among those in Silicon Valley who are helping to fund a scholarship program directed at these students.

"They grew up here - they speak like you and I," said Hawkins. "They are just normal kids who are really smart and we're banishing them."

Some of these students didn't even realize they were different from their classmates until they were in high school, said Hawkins.

Hawkins, along others like Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and former Intel chief Andy Grove, are supporting Educators for Fair Consideration, or E4FC , is offering scholarships to support academically talented students.

Katherine Gin, executive director and co-founder of the San Francisco-based organization, said she was moved by seeing students who, because of their immigration status, who could not afford college or finish an academic program because they lacked access to scholarships.

"This was heartbreaking to us," she said.

"These students have generally grown up here," said Gin. "Most of them came here when they were little. They don't have many memories of their own countries. They speak perfect English".

In many cases the students couldn't get scholarships because the application required a Social Security Number, said Gin.

"We ended up starting our own scholarship fund because we realized that people needed an example, a model to show them how it can be done," she said.

Gin's initial effort to raise scholarship money was to ask the guests to her wedding to donate to the scholarship fund instead of bringing presents. In that first year, 2006, they raised $5,000. In 2007, they began offering scholarships with a fund of about $14,000.

In the 2011-12 academic year E4FC gave out approximately $160,000 in scholarships to about 30 students, said Gin. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on the group's effort.

Unauthorized alien children, as a report prepared by Congress calls them, are able to receive free public education through high school. But once secondary education is completed, the obstacles to a productive life mount.

There have been efforts in Congress to create a pathway to permanent residency for these students, namely through the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.

The legislation would provide permanent residency for people who entered the U.S. as minors and who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. It also includes requirements to either serve in the military or attend college, but this legislation has failed to muster enough votes for passage.

It's unclear just how many students may be eligible for help under the DREAM Act. A Congressional Research Service report prepared for members of Congress cited a nearly 10-year-old study that about 65,000 undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for five years graduate from high school each year.

There may be more than 2 million eligible people in total, according to some estimates.

Gin said the tech's community's interest in the scholarship program "has been a pleasant surprise. The tech industry in Silicon Valley realizes that immigrants are very important."

Hawkins said their efforts are "mostly about the human aspects of the problem." Many of the students that are being helped are in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, but many others are not, he said.

Perhaps the reason the tech industry people wants to help these young adults is "we value intellect, we value initiative, and we value hard work," said Hawkins. "We see in these kids the attributes that are valued in the entrepreneurial world."

Hawkins said that "we also understand that our success is largely because we had the freedom to work, the freedom to travel, the freedom to pursue whatever dream we had. Undocumented students are like us but without any of those freedoms."

Mario Lio is one student getting help through the scholarship fund. He is 23 and came to the U.S. when he was 12 to stay with his uncle, while his father worked to get permanent residency.

While his father pursued his immigration, Lio focused on his academic work, believing that ultimately the paperwork issues would be resolved.

Lio ranked seventh in his middle school, was the top student in the English as a Second Language Program, and later was valedictorian of his high school. He graduated with a civil engineering degree in May, 2010 from the University of California, Berkeley, according to E4FC.

While Lio was in college, his father's case was dropped by immigration authorities. His father's case was complex because he had lived in China and Peru and was unable to get all the needed paperwork.

Lio is attending graduate school thanks to the help of E4FC, but is uncertain what the future will hold for him because of his status.

"It's scary to think of going back to Peru," said Lio. "I did not grow up there; I don't know if I could adapt."

Lio knows of many others in a position similar to his.

"Think of us as an investment," said Lio. "We want to contribute and we will contribute if given a chance."

An essay that Lio wrote a couple of years ago about 9/11 was circulated via a E4FC mailing list and seen by Intel co-founder Grove. Lio said he met with Grove, who is also an immigrant, a few months ago and found that the two have a lot in common.

[Other stories and poems by immigrant students.]

"It's incredible how similar the immigrant journey is," said Lio. "The American dream is something that connects us all, regardless of time and regardless of race," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

Read more about careers in Computerworld's Careers Topic Center.


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