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Immigrant Students Foster Their Own Paths In An Education System Designed For Others

Aissata Kaya started medical school this fall at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine. Now 23, she declared she wanted to be a doctor years ago while in the 11th grade at a high school in Mali.

In Florida, high school seniors meticulously cultivate their GPAs and standardized test scores to qualify for the Bright Futures Scholarship given by the state. With a variety of colleges to choose from, seniors wait for acceptances.

Students like Kaya, who are enrolled in the English to Speakers of Other Languages program at Gainesville High School, have overcome layers of adversity to achieve the same goals as their English-speaking peers.

Kaya was born in the United States, but moved away when she was 3 years old. After growing up in Mali, she moved back to Florida for what should have been her senior year of high school. Instead, the school asked her to complete the 11th grade again.

During her time at Gainesville High School, Kaya enrolled in honors and Cambridge classes. She was also a part of the English to Speakers of Other Languages program. There, she practiced her English and made friends. When it came time for the ACT and college applications, she struggled.

“I felt like I knew much more than what my ACT score reflected,” Kaya said.

Without a high ACT score, Kaya did not qualify for Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship. She submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but there was confusion about the information for her dad’s Social Security card.  Her father, who lives in Mali, paid for her first year at Santa Fe College out of pocket.

Students who earn the Bright Futures Scholarship meet several levels of criteria to qualify. These requirements have changed over the years, and it has become difficult for immigrant students to attain the scholarship.

In 2011, the law changed and required students to fill out a FASFA. Because this form requires a Social Security number, students were forced to weigh their immigration status against their ability to fund their college education.

“Some of the families came for economic reasons, some for political reasons…some of the kids wanted to come, and some of the kids didn’t. But, I think they realized how important it was to learn English and how important it was to try and go on to the community college,” Louise Yariv, 70, said.

Yariv worked as an ESOL teacher and chair coordinator for over 20 years at GHS. During her career, she witnessed many immigrant students who were eager to learn, respectful and kind.

“They knew that this was their chance to succeed,” Yariv said.

Despite ESOL students having a desire to move on to college, their lack of a Social Security number was not the only thing standing in their way. Bright Futures also stipulates standardized test scores for the SAT and ACT. In 2014, Bright Futures increased its required SAT score to a 1290 and ACT score to 29. This caused students eligible for the scholarship to drop from 29% to 20%.  This year, Bright Futures has increased its score minimums to 1330 for the SAT.

Because ESOL students are not native English speakers, they often lack the vocabulary and nuanced understanding of the language required to do well on timed aptitude tests.

Both Bright Futures and college admissions use these tests.

“They were already behind the eight ball when they had to qualify for Bright Futures by taking one of these high-stake timed tests,” Yariv said.

ESOL students are offered an untimed ACT to determine if they meet graduation requirements. Some students also qualify for extended time on a standard ACT, but it’s not guaranteed.

“The standardized English test is what is a hurdle for a lot of our students,” Kathryn Robinson, 61, said.

Robinson works at GHS as a paraprofessional instructional aide, coordinating ESOL students’ schedules and grades. She also administers school entrance tests to decide what ESOL classes would be best for them.

“We have had some brilliant students, and their path to higher education is usually to go to Santa Fe College for a couple of years and then transfer to the University of Florida,” Robinson said.

Santa Fe College does not require a SAT or ACT score, making the school a good fit for ESOL students who struggle with standardized tests. Santa Fe College also provides resources like the College Achievement Program to help minority students transition into college.

With extra support through programs like CAP, Santa Fe College offers ESOL students a foundation in the classroom.  However, without Bright Futures, financial uncertainty can still stand between them and a college degree.

Robinson and other teachers in the ESOL program at GHS encourage immigrant students to seek other scholarships through resources like the Education Foundation. Immigrant students often cannot apply for federal grants or scholarships because of their residency status. Some students take part-time or full-time jobs to help pay for their education. By taking only a few classes a semester, they can finance their college career.

“A lot of the immigrants work incredibly hard. They’re in high school, and they’re working to help support themselves and their families. I’m not sure a lot them understand how easy it is for people of privilege,” Robinson said.

Immigrant students lack the financial backing that is offered by the federal government for citizens. Without a foundational understanding of the English language, it is also difficult for them to meet the standards set forth by colleges and scholarships.

Still, many of them defy their challenging situation by seeking alternative avenues — transfers and private scholarships among them — toward a college degree, showing the same dedication as students born in the U.S.


Taylor is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.