No Social Security number, no federal financial aid By Ofelia Casillas, Tribune Reporter July 2, 2010 Fernando often paints in aggressive charcoal streaks against the canvas, depicting what he sees as a black-and-white world. Certainly, he sees little gray in his own situation. He was a promising American art student at one of the city's best high schools, with a partial scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, when he asked his Mexican parents for his Social Security number so he could apply for federal financial aid. They told him to sit down in the kitchen of their McKinley Park home. "You don't have a Social Security number," Fernando said they told him. "You weren't born here." Like that, he became an illegal immigrant and, as such, ineligible for the financial aid he had counted on to matriculate. School officials say his case is not unusual. Each year, students in this country illegally who have excelled at high school suddenly run up against the brick wall of their immigration status as they try to figure out how to pay for college. Schools are not allowed to ask for proof of citizenship. But without a Social Security number, the students cannot fill out the universal form required to apply for federal aid and loans. Fernando, 18, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be published, was the only illegal immigrant in Lindblom Math & Science Academy's first graduating class in 2009, said Paul Welsh, one of the school's counselors. This year, the school had at least three other seniors like Fernando in a class of 86. . Welsh and three other counselors have started to confidentially ask early on if students are in this country illegally in order to have more time to work with scholarship providers and colleges to create opportunities. "I'm watching these kids' future disappear because of the accident of their birth," Welsh said. "I was born a white guy in the United States. These kids are just as qualified as me or anyone else." Since 2001, legislation that would help college students in this country illegally afford tuition by paving a way toward legal residency has sat idle in Congress, part of the ongoing debate over federal immigration reforms. But the so-called Dream Act has garnered new attention recently as young adults across the nation have held sit-ins, such as one in Arizona that led to three students getting arrested outside U.S. Sen. John McCain's office, and "coming out" rallies, where they publicly proclaim their status. Even as their families push them to excel, students in this country illegally say they sometimes want to give up on school when faced with dismal scholarship options and an uncertain future. They are often frustrated to see their peers, who may have lesser academic qualifications and less financial need, throw away opportunities. "(Fernando's) story is very similar to many other stories I've heard," said Nilda Flores-Gonzalez, associate professor of sociology and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "There are a lot of young undocumented students who are faced with the same situation." About 65,000 children who have lived in the United States illegally for five years or longer graduate from high school each year, according to a 2009 report by The College Board, a not-for-profit that aims to connect students to college opportunities. While Chicago Public Schools officials said that they were anecdotally aware of illegal immigrants in their schools, they do not track them. CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond said in an e-mail that Chicago schools with high immigrant populations have started fundraising fairs and partnerships with community agencies to help create more options for these students. At Hancock College Preparatory High School near Midway Airport, where 15 percent — or 30— seniors this year are in the country illegally, officials have held carwashes and cookouts to help them attend college. "We are actively trying to manage this situation …" said Principal Pam Glynn. "We are all about changing the landscape and leveling the playing field." At Spry Community Links High School in Little Village, about 10 percent of the 150 students do not have Social Security numbers. "Valedictorians are typically undocumented students," said Principal Francisco Borras. High school officials said some colleges, such as Dominican University, a Catholic institution in River Forest, are friendlier than others in trying to help them. "Our admissions counselors are experienced at working with undocumented students to help them find scholarship sources," said Glenn Hamilton, assistant vice president of undergraduate enrollment, in an e-mail. "We also help undocumented students choose courses that will transfer easily to other institutions." Hamilton said his school has been informally keeping track of accepted students who did not fill out federal forms for student aid, which require a Social Security number. "We believe that an increasing number of undocumented students are applying to Dominican each year," Hamilton added. Fernando, who left Mexico at age 2, considers Chicago his hometown. He was devastated when his parents told him he was in the U.S. illegally. "I was just scared and shocked and I didn't know what to do or say," Fernando said. He has not told most of his friends of his status, for fear that they will treat him differently. Lindblom art teacher Michelle Wielgosz said after the news, Fernando's plans for college came to a standstill. Then, something even worse happened: He stopped painting. "Every day, coming to school, he would hear classmates with worse grades going to better schools. Two people in his art class that couldn't draw got more scholarships," Wielgosz said. "We stopped talking about college in class because of him." Then, Wielgosz made a decision. She would take her extra money from coaching soccer and pay for Fernando's classes at Harold Washington College. Fernando pays her back on a monthly basis, working as a dishwasher at a restaurant and helping his father clean heaters. "His parents couldn't afford it, and I knew it," she said. "I just see a future in him." The Art Institute is still Fernando's dream school. While officials with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago declined to comment on Fernando's situation, they said that citizenship "has no bearing on admission decisions." Fernando is taking the summer off from school to work multiple jobs to help his family but plans to return to a full college semester in the fall — including two art classes. Most weeks, Wielgosz gives Fernando feedback on his paintings to help him build a stronger portfolio, a step closer to his goal of one day becoming an art teacher. On a recent morning, Wielgosz critiqued Fernando's self-portrait, painted from a mirror in his room. Wielgosz coached him on where his light source comes in, what to do about negative space and incorporating his furniture in the background. "The sketching is good, ready to go," his teacher said. "You know where your forms are at." Wielgosz told Fernando to stop outlining his paintings. "Life is not outlined," she told him. Tribune reporter Antonio Olivo contributed to this report. email@example.com Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/e...0,960245.story ================================================== === Art student? This Mexican gang banger works with spray cans. Ever notice that these Latino "Me immigrant. Me so poor!" stories are always written by a member of LA RAZA?