Israel, an undocumented student who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, is the first in his family to attend college with the help of two high school teachers who set out to change the lives of Dreamers, who often lack higher education opportunities, by creating the Pell Project, which gives students in need $5920 scholarships. Their heroic efforts inspired French Montana’s “We Are the Dream” campaign to help fund their cause.
In February, multi-platinum hip hop artist French Montana teamed up with MTV and the nonprofit organization Get Schooled for “We Are the Dream,” a campaign that seeks to help undocumented immigrants, currently enrolled in educational institutions in the U.S., in school. In keeping with its mission, the campaign created a grant program to finance students’ higher educations. The first recipients of its grant are John Kearny and Connor Nowalk, teachers at Alta Vista Charter High School in Kansas City, MO. The educators, who work at a school where 45% of the student body are undocumented, wanted to help DREAMers secure their educational prospects as their futures in the U.S. remain uncertain.
“After several years of witnessing some of our best and brightest students being financially shut out of college because of their status, we decided to do something about it,” Kearny told PEOPLE CHICA. “To us, they embody the American Dream, and DREAMers and their families have sacrificed too much and worked too hard to not doing anything.”
Norwalk added: “I think John and I saw this as all part of our roles as educators. Knowing that being academically prepared, being accepted to schools, and having the desire to attend college still wasn’t enough to ensure our students got the education that they deserved was maddening.”
Israel, who’s currently studying computer science at Emporia State University in Kansas, is the first student to benefit from their Pell Project. The college student didn’t see himself getting a higher education after the Justice Department announced plans to terminate the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last August, which leaves nearly 800,000 Dreamers vulnerable to deportation, jeopardizing their educational prospects.
Israel said he lost hope for his educational future after being told that he needed a social security number to apply for a scholarship: “I knew my parents wanted me to do good in school because that was the reason they left Mexico. I still did my work and went to school, but I knew I wasn’t doing my best,” he admitted. When Kearny introduced Israel to the Early College Program (ECP), it encouraged him to start performing better academically and envision a future in college: ” At one point, I didn’t know if I would go to college. If it wasn’t for John, I don’t know how high school would’ve gone, I probably wouldn’t have been third of my [high school] class.”
Now, Israel has one less worry, but admits he still fears for his future in American under the Trump Administration: “I’m giving it my all just to stay in school, and don’t know what to do if [the government] ends DACA because I can’t go to school or work and I’ve thought about going back to Mexico if they end DACA, but I know more English than Spanish, so I don’t know how well I would do in school in Mexico,” he said.
However, he remains hopeful, telling PEOPLE CHICA, “Right now, DACA hasn’t ended so I’ll just keep trying my best to finish school before it does come to an end. With my computer science degree, I hope to show other immigrants that anything is possible. They can go to school and get a degree because if I could I know everyone can. All you gotta do is try hard and not give up so easy if the road gets difficult.”