NORTH PARK — As a little girl, Veronika Gaidadzisova set her sights on becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree.
Come summer 2017, Gaidadzisova, a junior at Northeastern Illinois University, should have that dreamed-of diploma in her hand.
But it's been a long road for the 29-year-old, who lives near Midway Airport.
A decade ago, Gaidadzisova was accepted into Loyola University after graduating from high school with honors, but she ran into a brick wall that prevented her from enrolling: her undocumented status.
Citizenship isn't a requirement to attend college in the United States, but it's an absolute necessity in order to obtain a student loan or a state or federal grant. Without financial assistance, college for Gaidadzisova, like many of her undocumented peers, was a non-starter.
"I didn't know about the status until I was in high school. I went to go for my driver's license and my mom said, 'Um, we might have a problem,'" recalled Gaidadzisova, who came to Chicago as a 14-year-old from the Czech Republic.
"I was devastated. You can't work, you can't drive. I got upset with my family — 'Why did you bring me here?'" she said. "It feels like you're stuck between two places: One place doesn't want you and the other you don't know."
In 2012, Gaidadzisova became one of the millions of undocumented youths to benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which confers lawful status on certain undocumented individuals, specifically those who came to the United States before they turned 16.
"You're not a citizen, but you can get a work permit and a Social [Security Number]," she explained. "It's opened up a lot of doors. It's given me hope."
The first thing Gaidadzisova did after being accepted for deferred action was apply to NEIU, having researched the most affordable options.
What she didn't know at the time: NEIU is fast gaining a reputation for removing barriers and providing support to undocumented students.
"Thirty years ago, undocumented college students were unheard of," said Daniel Lopez, NEIU's associate vice president for student affairs.
He himself came to the United States as a 10-year-old and was only able to obtain legal residency following reforms enacted in the 1980s.
"I didn't think I could even apply [to college]. No one was there to guide me or help me," he said.
He eventually made it to college and graduate school, where he found mentors at every turn. Lopez's mission at NEIU is to make sure the university's undocumented students receive the same guidance he did, be it financial, academic or emotional.
"Undocumented are the most motivated students I could ever think of," he said. "They're often getting the best grades, they're persistent, they're resilient."
In 2014, 250 of NEIU's students officially identified themselves as undocumented, a number Lopez believes is in truth much higher.
"Some people are still very afraid of sharing," he said.
Gaidadzisova confirmed that in filling out any kind of form, she frequently feared the next knock on the door would be from the FBI or immigration authorities.
In 2012, Lopez conceived of and implemented the Undocumented Student Project, under which staff receive training about issues affecting undocumented students. An offshoot of the project is the Ally program, which borrows from the school's LGBT community in creating "safe zones" for undocumented students. Staff place Ally decals on their office doors or cubicles that identify them as "undocumented-friendly."
"I've been here 13 years and have come across faculty and staff that had the best intentions but didn't know how to answer basic questions like 'Can I go to grad school?'" he said. "You're not an immigration expert but most importantly the student knows you care."
Undocumented students face a host of worries, from the specter of deportation to uncertain career options, but the biggest issue for most is financial, according to Lopez. In the absence of loans or grants, many undocumented students work part-time or full-time to pay their tuition, frequently interrupting their education to save up money for school, he said.
Gaidadzisova has a job as a bank teller and also receives some financial help from her mom and an older brother (another older brother stayed behind in the Czech Republic). She checked the wrong box regarding her citizenship on NEIU's application and wound up paying far more than she needed to.
It was a member of the school's well-trained staff who informed Gaidadzisova that her deferred action status qualified her for in-state tuition, not the out-of-state she'd been billed. The subsequent refund was enough to cover an entire semester.
NEIU has also opened up nearly all of the scholarships under its control to undocumented students.
"There are private scholarships institutions have. Institutions are allowed to make decisions about how they use those funds," Lopez said. "There's no reason why we need citizenship as a requirement to be eligible for certain scholarships."
Victor, a senior at NEIU who preferred not to have his last name published, is among the beneficiaries of the school's private funds. Arriving in Chicago with his parents as a 1-year-old from Mexico, Victor, who grew up in Back of the Yards and Brighton Park, first attended Harold Washington College before transferring to NEIU.
"My concern was always, 'How am I going to pay for it? How am I going to finance this?'" he said. "It's always lurking."
He assembled a "dream team" to assist him with his college applications and letters of recommendations, and eventually nabbed scholarships that cover most of his expenses at NEIU, which allows him to focus on his studies as a language major.
Just months away from an anticipated December graduation, Victor is now eyeballing master's programs. The answer, by the way, is yes, undocumented students can attend grad school, but, same as with undergrad, no loans are available.
This is where training through the Undocumented Student Project plays a role. When working with a student like Victor, it's key for NEIU staff members to understand his financial predicament and that he'll need to apply to master's programs that offer fully paid assistantships to undocumented students.
The university recently entered into an arrangement with TheDream.US to obtain even more money specifically earmarked for undocumented students.
TheDream.US handles the fundraising end and then partners with universities to dole that money out to qualified students. In NEIU's case, TheDream.US scholarships will cover nearly all of a student's tuition.
"For us, it's huge," Lopez said. "When they contacted us, we said, 'Absolutely.'"
Lopez is often asked what's the point of providing undocumented students with college degrees when so many of them will be unable to find jobs in their chosen careers due to their status.
His response: "They're worth more with a degree than without. No one can take that away from them."
Gaidadzisova, who's majoring in social work, remains dead set on getting that diploma regardless of whether the next U.S. president cancels the deferred action program.
But she might not be the first in her family with a degree. Her 40-year-old brother in the Czech Republic went back to school himself. The two commiserate about their studies via Skype and Gaidadzisova said a frequent joke is "We might graduate at the same time."
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