It wasn’t that long ago that tech entrepreneur Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca thought she’d never be able to go to college. As an undocumented immigrant, financial-aid opportunities were limited, and despite her long list of academic achievements, she “knew” she couldn’t go.
“I was an undocumented student and I didn’t know that I did not qualify for FAFSA and that’s where it all began,” Salamanca said in an email. “My world came down crashing as my dreams of attending college were no longer in my reach. I did not have the money to pay out of pocket and I didn’t qualify for any scholarships either.”
It wasn’t until after she moved away from home to escape the embarrassment of not going to college that someone pointed Salamanca to a community college counselor, and she learned about financial-aid opportunities for students like her, she said in an interview with GoodCall. And now, armed with a degree, Salamanca is creating a smartphone app called DREAMer’s Roadmap to help students in the same predicament.
She shares her motivation behind the project on the app’s website:
In California alone we have two million undocumented people. Approximately 17 percent of undocumented immigrants are under the age of 18. It’s estimated that there were 360,000 undocumented high school graduates between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four in the United States in 2006. However, it is estimated that each year only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates—about 65,000 nationwide—are eligible to attend college. In 2005, only about 50,000 undocumented students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. Of these college students, 18,000 were enrolled in California community colleges in the 2005-2006 school year as a result of financial accessibility.
The app is aiming to launch in early April and will match users to information about scholarships for which they are eligible. Students can sign up to receive push notifications that remind them when applications are due and will also be able to add scholarships they discover elsewhere that are not already in the database.
Salamanca’s goal is to reach 10,000 DREAMers (those who would qualify for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) the first year and for each of them to apply for at least two scholarships.
“I know that this tool will help several students have hope that they can go to college and not have to go through what I went through,” its creator said.
Salamanca, who now has official U.S. resident status, has had help funding the app through various Latino-focused events and competitions, the Latin Post reports. In 2013, she participated in the DREAMers Hackathon sponsored in part by FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group led by some of the biggest names in tech. In 2014, she won the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge and the first place prize of $100,000.
That same year she was recognized by the White House as a Champion for Change, and Forbes named her to the 2016 list of 30 Under 30 in Education for her work.
“It’s still kind of shocking to me. It’s kind of unheard of [because] when I started this, I was undocumented. I was an undocumented Latina in tech,” Salamanca told GoodCall. “I’m very fortunate that I pursued my passion… It puts me in a place… where I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a Latina and I’m in tech. And, I’m serving my community, which is the most satisfying part for me…lifting the burden from students that are going to be in the same situation as I was when I graduated from high school.”
Note: This post was updated on Feb. 10 to include comments from Salamanca.