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Scholarship helps fund college dream for Alta Vista students

One scholarship at Alta Vista High School allows undocumented students the chance to get their piece of the American dream to attend college.

The Pell Project, founded by two teachers at the school in April 2016, is designed to offer scholarship money to undocumented students who wish to attend college at the two- or four-year level.

“We noticed that senior students would come to us and apply for colleges, and they would later tell us they weren’t going to the schools they were accepted to,” says Connor Nowalk, a teacher at Alta Vista and co-founder of the scholarship. “For most of these kids, it was because they were undocumented and couldn’t afford to go.”

Add to that reality the 2016 Missouri law that mandated that undocumented students pay international student tuition rates at Missouri colleges, and Nowalk was seeing red.

“We were angry about it, because we wanted our kids to succeed,” he recalls.

The school partnered with the Hispanic Development Fund to disburse the scholarship funds to colleges. Usually, that amounts to roughly $5,000 per successful applicant – about what a Pell Grant would award. Last year saw only one successful applicant, but Nowalk says that three scholarships will be awarded this year.

Alta Vista Principal Ed Mendez, in remarks to audience members at a scholarship event earlier this month, made a thinly veiled reference to the Trump administration’s recent nullification of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), citing its harmful effects on the undocumented community.

“What do we do when people we elect don’t try to solve problems in our community?” Mendez said to the audience at the event. “Sometimes, we have to take things into our own hands.”

That’s exactly what advocates for undocumented students and applicants for this scholarship will do, according to Samantha Carmona, Alta Vista student body president, who also is involved with the Pell Project.

“Our donors have been really supportive. They’re really involved. It’s beautiful to see,” Carmona says. “As a citizen, I love being able to help my friends who are undocumented. It really makes me happy, and it unifies our community. We’re allowing someone that support system so they can feel safe and secure.”

In addition to public and private donors, to help fund the scholarship, students have participated in a number of fundraising activities that have been well-received by students and faculty members alike, Carmona notes.

“Right now, we’re having a piggy bank competition,” says Carmona, who adds that students in each class at the school can donate their spare change. “That fundraiser started October 3 and ends November 3.”

Local band Making Movies played at the high school in a drive to raise funds; students also have designed and printed t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “We are all immigrants” for $10 each.

Whether it’s a penny or a dollar or 10, every donation helps, Carmona says.

“This is my school, my family, my second home,” she says. “I care about each and every student. It brings me such joy to say that I’m part of something so big that is changing the world.”

The money raised certainly could change the world of Alta Vista senior Clara Odette Moran Enriquez, who says she plans to apply for the scholarship.

“I come from a lower-income family, so I need all the help I can get,” says Enriquez, who adds that she would like to become a lawyer. “My grandmother didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. My grandfather had to drop out of school when he was in second grade to take care of his siblings. They don’t want me to fall into the same trap as them. They want me to be happy.”

Senior Lucero Lopez says she, too, plans to apply for the scholarship, and that if she graduates from college, she will be the first person in her family to do so. Her sister, Lopez says, went to college for a time but ultimately had to drop out due to cost.

“I want to be bigger than that, so I don’t have to go through the same struggle,” she says. “This scholarship would take a weight off my shoulders. … I feel like if I don’t go to college, there won’t be something brighter in the future. I feel like you have to do that to get somewhere in life.”

Enriquez says she has been in awe of how the scholarship and desire to help undocumented students has brought her classmates together.

“I feel so grateful to be part of such a great, supportive community,” she says. “It’s such a nice feeling.”

To donate to the Pell Project, call Alta Vista High School at (816) 471-2582.