Donors help students affected by Prop. 300
Arizona Daily Star

By Lourdes Medrano

Tucson, Arizona

Palo Verde High School graduate Celina Tolano is a former cheerleader, prom queen and homecoming queen whose report cards always had A's and B's.

But she lives in the country unlawfully, which nearly thwarted her college plans.

Tolano's lack of legal status makes her ineligible for in-state tuition, a directive that Arizona voters approved in Proposition 300 last November.

Until recently, the costlier out-of-state tuition might have put college out of reach for the Mexico-born Tolano. Instead, she became the first beneficiary of a college scholarship fund the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and philanthropist Paul Lindsey created especially for students like her.

"This scholarship is a blessing," said Tolano, who wants to be a math teacher.

Lindsey said he decided to donate $50,000 in seed money for the scholarship fund after learning state law would make it tough for high school graduates such as Tolano to afford college this year.

"I was outraged," the Tucson businessman said. "These are exactly the wrong people that we want to punish. These are the students who have graduated from local high schools; maybe they've been in the states almost their whole lives.

"Maybe they're good students, and they want to continue with their education. Those are the people that we need here and we want here."

Former state Sen. Dean Martin, the Phoenix Republican behind Proposition 300, said he has no problem with private funds being used to assist foreign-born students.

"The purpose of the law was never to deny access to higher education," Martin noted. "It was simply to end taxpayer subsidies for those who are here illegally."

But Martin said he opposes the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which has long stalled in Congress and would grant students raised in the United States temporary legal status and citizenship eligibility if they enroll in college.

"In many ways, the DREAM Act is just a student-based amnesty," Martin said.

Tomás León, who stepped down as president of the chamber last week, said the organization would work to add to Lindsey's donation. The scholarship fund is intended for Arizona high school students with good grades and who plan to attend Pima Community College, he said.

"The high cost of out-of-state tuition makes it almost impossible for these kids to continue their education," León said. "As a community, we can't turn away and kick these students to the curb as if they were nobody."

At PCC, in-state students pay about $1,200 in annual tuition, while out-of-state residents are charged $5,600. At the state's universities, in-state students pay roughly $5,000, while nonresidents pay about $15,000.

León's hope is that the DREAM Act someday will make the scholarship fund unnecessary. "It's in the best interest of the country to help educate these young people," he said.

Students born in Mexico who live in Arizona, either legally or illegally, also will have access soon to another newly-established college scholarship fund.

Fundación México, which works to strengthen the influence of Hispanics, and the Arizona Border Rights Foundation will raise funds to boost an initial $5,000 donation from their own members. Florencio Zaragoza, president of Fundación México, said the scholarship fund would continue even if the DREAM Act passes.

Seizing the opportunity

Tolano, whose parents brought her to Tucson when she was 7, said she always assumed she would attend college.

"I want to have a career and give back to the community," she said.

Until now, the teen said her unlawful status was something she rarely thought about because it meant no obstacles.

Her family initially had intended to return home to Hermosillo, Sonora, she said. But as time passed and Tolano and her two older sisters became more involved in school, it became harder to leave.

After graduation, Tolano said she realized that Proposition 300 could make it harder for her to enroll in college. Unlike U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, she does not qualify for most scholarships and financial aid.

Still, Solano said she had faith that she would find a solution to her dilemma.

After her May graduation, she learned about the new scholarship fund from a local immigrant-advocacy group. She quickly applied for it and got a scholarship to cover a semester's tuition. Good grades automatically renew the scholarship.

Tolano said she hopes the DREAM Act becomes a reality by the time she completes her two-year studies at Pima, since the legislation would allow her to transfer to one of the state universities as an in-state student.

For now, she will focus on the opportunity before her.

"These scholarships will help a lot of students who can't go to college because they're in the same situation I'm in," Tolano said. "Being the first to receive one, I feel a special responsibility to do well."

● Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347 or