Higher fees present big obstacles: Fresno

FRESNO -- Pedro García's father left a potentially successful accounting career in Guerrero, México and moved to Paso Robles after family members convinced him of better opportunities.

García was a year-and-a-half old at the time.

Today, García is 24 and a second-year graduate student at California State University, Fresno. He is pursuing a master's degree in Ecology.

"I guess you could say, I am fulfilling my dad's unfinished dream," said García.

"Back in México, he went to college after having excelled in high school. Right before he graduated, he was one of only four from his tiny community to be accepted into a prestigious fellowship program where he would be the head accountant for a high-end hotel chain in México, but he didn't finish. He dropped out because he came to the U.S."

García, however, faces his own obstacles before he can go into a Ph.D. program or pursue a forestry career upon graduation next year.

As an undocumented, AB 540 student, he is allowed to pursue a college education in California, but is ineligible to receive publicly funded financial aid. Recent hikes in college tuition have made it increasingly difficult to fund his education and to finish his degree program in two years.

Last spring, García earned his bachelor's degree in biology from Fresno State.

"My situation can best be described as a Catch-22. On the one hand, I feel like I have to rush through school to get my education done as quick as possible because I can't afford to stay longer. But, when I am finished, I can't do anything with my education because I can't get a job. In the end, I can't help but wonder what greater purpose my education serves if I can't get a job," said García.

When CSU trustees approved a 12 percent tuition increase on July 12, García struggled to find ways to pay the additional $700 this fall.

He has received private scholarships to fund his undergraduate education. His first year at Fresno State, he secured $9,000 in scholarships to pay his tuition. However, every year since then, tuition hikes have been the norm, making funding for his graduate program difficult.

This summer, he turned to family for help.

"I went home to sell snow cones. My dad owns a small fruit stand where he sells ice cream and a number of other products, so I helped him out and I saved all the money I made," said García.

During his father's off-season, he works in carpentry -- another job García takes on to help out his dad.

García says the biggest obstacle and challenge in obtaining an education has been and continues to be "the finances" and knowing that "getting scholarships that are specifically for AB 540 students is becoming ever-more competitive."

"I feel so guilty every time I am awarded a scholarship. I can't help but wonder what incoming freshmen student, who is also AB 540--is more deserving of that money. I ask myself, how are they going to make it?" said García.

There are 250 AB540 students attending Fresno State, and "we all compete for the same scholarships," said García. "We all get to know one another pretty well."

At the moment, García's biggest dream is to be able to obtain a job after graduation. And the only way that can happen is if the DREAM Act is passed.

"The DREAM Act is not new. It was first introduced in Congress before I was born and here I am 24 years later and it still hasn't passed. This is a problem. The way I see it, it has been a political ball that has been thrown around by political parties only to garner Latino support and it has lacked strong leadership. Not a single person has spearheaded the act nor made it a priority," said García.

"Yes, there have been rallies and supporters have come out in the thousands to chant and make their voices heard, but what good does that do when nobody is making it their priority to make sure it gets passed?" said García.

"The fact that I am still here today, unable to get a job after I graduate despite the amount of money I have contributed to the economy by paying the full cost of my college tuition each year, taxes and other costs associated with getting an education, says something about who we are. We are not just dreamers. We are over-achievers. We have that internal drive to be the best that we can be to give back to society."

When classes started last week, he decided to extend the completion of his graduate program to another semester.

"I just can't afford to finish in two years like I had planned," said García.

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