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Latinos Count program offers Hispanics a helping hand toward college

In terms of barriers to higher learning, the steadily increasing cost of college looms large. Add to that a background in which no one else in the family attended college. Then consider a legal status that places affordable, in-state tuition out of reach.

An insurmountable challenge for Hispanic high school students? Not so, believes Steve Corona, the longtime Fort Wayne Community Schools board member. He’s formed a new nonprofit, Latinos Count, with the goal of sending more Hispanic students to college.

The group’s first big push came this week, with sessions to inform school administrators, guidance counselors, youth service agency workers and university admissions officials about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It’s the stopgap measure President Barack Obama authorized last year after Congress failed to address comprehensive immigration reform, including approval of the DREAM Act. That bill would have provided a route to U.S. citizenship for undocumented youth who graduate from high school and enroll in college or enlist in the military.

The DACA designation protects undocumented, qualified youth from deportation for two years, with an option for renewal. Recipients can obtain a driver’s license in Indiana, apply for a Social Security number and a work permit. Many states also grant in-state tuition rates to DACA recipients. The Indiana General Assembly voted to prohibit the practice here, except for a handful of students already enrolled.

But private scholarships are available to DACA students, as well as private institutions that offer financial aid to undocumented students. To apply, students generally must submit a federal student aid form, which requires the Social Security number available with the DACA designation.

Corona organized assemblies Wednesday at South Side High School, where more than a quarter of the students are Hispanic, to hear about the DACA application process from Angelo Mathay of the National Immigration Law Center.

They also heard a message on the value of post-secondary education from Larry Gonzalez, associate director in the Office of Admissions at Indiana University-Bloomington. Alfredo Perez, an executive with Warsaw-based Depuy Synthes who serves as chairman of the Latinos Count board, and Sal Soto, the organization’s co-founder, described their own paths from southeast Fort Wayne and South Side High School to college degrees and success.

“It meant a lot,” senior Kassandra Torres said after the session. “We never really hear about Hispanics in our school. Telling us how they went to college was good.”

Torres, who said she’s considered studying nursing at Ivy Tech Community College, would be the first in her family to attend college.

That’s a point Corona wants to make with the Vision 2020 leaders pursuing the “Big Goal” of 60 percent of northeast Indiana residents holding a degree or credential by 2025.

“If you want to reach that goal, you need these kids to go to college and earn degrees,” he said.

Corona and Soto said that Latinos Count will be a presence at South Side and other area schools, reminding Hispanic students that a college education is a goal they should set and achieve.