For New Jersey DACA Student, The Road To College Is Bumpier Than Expected We first met Desiree Armas back in January. She graduated with honors from high school, but her home state of New Jersey doesn't allow state financial aid for students in the country illegally.

For New Jersey DACA Student, The Road To College Is Bumpier Than Expected

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Let's check in now with a so-called DREAMer who we first met in January. Desiree Armas was applying to college, and she was worried about the future of DACA. That's the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals which protects her from deportation. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the road to college has been a little bumpier than she expected.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When Desiree Armas graduated from high school a few weeks ago, you might say she wore her accomplishments on her sleeve.

DESIREE ARMAS: So those are all the cords I wore. One of them is for National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society.

ROSE: Wow, there's a whole bunch of them.

D. ARMAS: Yeah. Yeah.

ROSE: We met a few days after graduation at her family's apartment in Elizabeth, N.J. Armas showed me her graduation robes and those cords. They look like braided ropes with tassels on the end in bright red and gold. They're supposed to represent her academic and extracurricular accomplishments during high school.

D. ARMAS: I always admired the kids who wore - had a bunch of stuff on graduation. So that's why I think I was so excited for graduation, just to, you know, like, low-key show off everything I've done.

ROSE: Because you're not - you don't strike me as, like, a flashy - a flashy person.

D. ARMAS: Yeah, I'm not - I'm really not. So this is, like, my subtle way of saying, this is what I did. And I don't even have to say anything.

ROSE: Armas worked hard at her magnet school. But there was one big difference between Desiree Armas and the other kids - her immigration status. Armas' parents overstayed their visas when she was just a kid. Now Armas is signed up for DACA. That protects her from deportation. But it made applying to college more complicated. Armas says even the college counselor at her high school was overwhelmed.

D. ARMAS: I like my counselor. I really do respect her. And yes, she tried her best. But, I mean, it's like the first time she ever had to deal with something like that, you know, having to consider my immigration status. And she just didn't know how to deal with that.

ROSE: While her classmates were committing to colleges, Armas was still trying to figure out if she could afford college at all. In some states DACA students are eligible for state aid, but New Jersey isn't one of them. So while Armas was admitted to a couple of schools, including the state university, the schools weren't offering enough financial aid to make it work. Her mother, Olga Armas, says it was scary.

OLGA ARMAS: (Through interpreter) It was extremely sad to see Desiree so defeated. And we felt guilty because we brought her to this country.

ROSE: Part of Desiree Armas' problem was confusion over how to fill out her federal financial aid form because her parents don't have Social Security numbers. Nedia Morsy is the youth organizer at Make the Road New Jersey, a nonprofit group. Morsy says she's seen this a lot because guidance counselors, even well-meaning ones, often don't understand what DACA students need.

NEDIA MORSY: There is an education and responsibility that they need to have more than other students. They need to have an awareness of what monies are available to them and how. And then plan college applications around that, right? So money comes first, and then the school, the dream school, comes after.

ROSE: Morsy helped Desiree Armas get her financial aid paperwork straightened out. And she knew about another school in New Jersey that Armas hadn't applied to before, St. Peter's University, a small private college in Jersey City near where she lives.

D. ARMAS: St. Peter's offered me a full ride. They even called me saying your application is, like, one of the best we've seen all year. They invited me to their honors college and they were, like, really excited for me to go. And right off the bat I really liked St. Peter's.

ROSE: Desiree Armas got some other good news in June. DACA will continue, at least for now. So after years of not knowing where or if she was going to college, Armas says it was a relief. It felt like all her hard work is starting to pay off. Joel Rose, NPR News, Elizabeth, N.J.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.