On a Saturday afternoon, four female students from Kansas City's Alta Vista Charter High School are making a three-hour trip in a rented minivan to Omaha. As they get closer, they each practice their pitches for why they deserve a full-ride scholarship to college.
Brittany emphasizes the long hours she puts into extracurricular work making an electric car.
Anahi lays out how she wants to be a lawyer to better "serve my community" as an adult.
Wendy outlines how she dreams of being a psychologist who helps those with mental impairments.
And Leticia tells of her efforts to fundraise for the families of two murder victims in her neighborhood.
The girls' adviser John Kearney gives each of them feedback as he's driving. When he nears their destination, he says , "You all have incredible stories. Don't hold back, just leave it all out there."
Looking For 'Mercy'
They are traveling to the College of St. Mary in Omaha. The small, private all-women’s school offers what it calls the Misericordia Grant for high-achieving high school seniors who are also undocumented immigrants. (In Spanish, misericordia means 'mercy'.) It will pay for most of a four-year education at the college, at a value of more than $100,000.
Kearney says the stakes for these students are high. "Today is like the lottery. It is really going to be huge to determine whether one or more of these girls get to start at a four-year college.”
So much is riding on this trip because these girls, all undocumented immigrants from Mexico, who have lived most of their lives in Missouri, have essentially been priced out of college in the state they call home. A law passed last year forces undocumented students like them to pay out-of-state tuition at Missouri colleges and universities. And while some current college students have been aided by privately-funded scholarships to help offset the added cost, it's changed the calculations dramatically for these high school seniors.
“I don’t understand why Nebraska has better opportunities than Missouri. I’m not saying it’s a better state, but it kind of is right now," Leticia says in exasperation. (All four girls wanted only their first names used for this story due to their and their families' immigration status.)
Leticia says before the change went into effect last summer she had been considering Northwest Missouri State in Maryville. With in-state tuition slightly less than $4,000 a semester, it was near the limit of what her family could afford, but she had the grades and test scores to consider it a viable option. But now, the law requires she pay the out-of-state rate of nearly $7,000, which is too much.
The other girls have similar stories. Anahi, who wants to be a lawyer, says the new law has made her, at times, doubt that possibility.
“Yes, I knew I would finish high school but I was thinking about not even going to college. Because I thought if I'm not getting any help, and I’m not getting help from parents, how am I supposed to pay for my college?"
Kearney says these students have met with representatives of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, whose veto of the law was overridden last summer. But he says beyond that, they have little recourse.
“It’s a small population and they don’t really have many voices fighting on behalf of them. They kind of live in the shadows in our society.”
Learning To Embrace Who They Are
Kearney hopes they may be able to find a place at the College of St. Mary. He says while Missouri public colleges may be constrained in the current political climate, private Catholic schools—with their hefty endowments and social justice missions—are becoming a go-to option for his students. He points out Rockhurst University and Donnelly College as two, closer-to-home examples.
Indeed, interview day at the College of St. Mary feels catered to these Latina students. The dozen or so girls applying for the Misericordia and some of their families get a presentation in Spanish, tour the campus, and meet with current Latina students who won the award in previous years. (One was an Alta Vista alumna.)
Dr. Brenda Romero, who directs St. Mary’s Spanish program, says the Latinas who come to the college are often timid, lacking self-confidence. She suggests this is a result of having been treated like second-class citizens for so long.
“We try to change that idea, get them to embrace who they are, embrace their ethnic background, their cultural heritage, how valuable they have can be for their future."
'It Comes From Your Corazon.'
In the afternoon, the girls, one by one, interview with a panel of St. Mary's administrators and current students. Theoretically, the Alta Vista girls are competing against one another, but they still try to calm each other’s nerves as they wait.
Leticia, who is one of the last to get called, worries she will cry during the interview. Brittany, who was one of the first to go, tells her that is okay.
"As long as it comes from your corazon," she says.
Indeed, these girls have put a lot of heart into applying for the Misericordia. But if it doesn’t work out, they’ve applied to other private schools and community colleges closer to home, even though the price for public community colleges in Missouri has also gone up with the law change.
After the interviews end, the group walks back to the minivan. Leticia says she is grateful for the chance to apply for this scholarship. And yes, she admits, she did cry in her interview. She says she couldn’t hide her frustration at the extra hurdle Missouri lawmakers have put in front of her.
“When they were interviewing me I was crying. I didn’t know how to express my anger at the obstacles they’re putting up for us. You know, we’re normal people, too.”
A fitting sentiment, possibly, for a would-be college student applying for a scholarship called 'mercy'.
Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him @kcurkyle.