As the rhetoric over national immigration policy continues to get ratcheted up, advocates for those who are not legal residents of the U.S. are working hard to allow those in the shadows to participate in that conversation. Gabriella Quinanila, one such advocate who participated in the “keep families together” protest in New Paltz last week, is the director of Adelante Student Voices, a program for undocumented high school students.
Quinanila was brought to this country from El Salvador when she was 13 years old; unable to speak a word of English, she found herself living in the rural Catskills with her family. Fortunately, she got enrolled in the youth program of Rural & Migrant Ministry, which has been supported by about a dozen different faith organizations since its founding in Rosendale in 1981. She met many people through that program, and continued to expand her network as a student at Dutchess Community College. Quinanila eventually went to SUNY Stony Brook and decided she wanted to help other children in the same situation back home find their way through a world they did not create.
Adelante Student Voices — adelante meaning “moving forward” — is a program and support system for undocumented high school students who wish to continue their education, but aren’t sure how to go about that. Immigration status is no barrier to entry to New York public schools, but navigating the college application process is complex even under the best of circumstances. It’s organized under the auspices of RMM, which serves as fiscal sponsor until separate nonprofit status can be secured.
During a ten-day summer program — this year’s session recently ended — students who come from all over the state learn the basics about college: what “GPA” stands for and why it’s important, standardized admission tests, applications, financial aid, majors and minors and all the other topics anyone looking to college needs to understand. They visit a community college (this year it was Ulster), a four-year SUNY school, a CUNY school and one private institution to get a sense of the different programs and hurdles of each type.
The documentation requirements of colleges and scholarships vary widely, she explained, and in this program these students are guided through understanding which options might be easier or more challenging to pursue. They “don’t have to feel they have limited options.”
At the same time, “We are very real with them,” Quinanila said, telling them that “it’s a hard, difficult process, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get there.” The students also get access to counselors who can read those essays and write recommendation letters.
One thing that’s always stressed in the program, Quinanila explained, is the need for support outside of the Adelante team. Those counselors are committed to providing help for the next five years, and the students invariably see each other as “un familia” once the ten days runs its course, but blood relatives are also important. They can provide both emotional and financial support which can make the difference between success and falling short.
That sense of family comes from spending that summer session around others who won’t judge them for their accent or appearance, who have similar stories and struggles. “Everybody cries at some point during the week,” but there is also a lot of fun to be had.
Adelante Student Voices presently has sufficient funding to add about 20 students each year, but Quinanila hopes to expand that over time. The organization is supported by a combination of grant funding, individual supporters and crowdfunding campaigns. Those interested in donating, or applying for next year’s program, should visit adelantestudentvoices.org