Nelson Mandela once said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. For the 280 high school students who attended the second annual Dreamer’s Conference at Nassau Community College (NCC), academic opportunity can very well be the equalizer for many of them, regardless of their citizenship status.
Long Island Immigrant Student Association (LIISA), a nonprofit grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of immigrant students on Long Island, joined forces with NCC to host pupils from 10 school districts from around Long Island including Great Neck, Locust Valley, Levittown, Oyster Bay, Brentwood and Valley Stream. The purpose of the conference was to give these young people the tools for advocacy and assistance from admissions, financial aid and advisement counselors from the college to assist them in preparing for college.
Along with providing free lunch for the attendees, NCC and LIISA secured Tereza Lee as the day’s keynote speaker. A noted immigration advocate, Lee was born in Brazil to Korean parents and immigrated to Chicago when she was 2 years old. She herself was undocumented for 22 years and upon seeking help from Senator Dick Durbin regarding her immigration status, the latter began working on legislation which would become known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act is geared toward undocumented minors brought to this country by their parents as children. The purpose of this yet-unpassed bill is to create a multi-phase process for qualifying alien minors in the United States that would first grant conditional residency and, upon meeting further qualifications, permanent residency. For Lee, events like these are crucial for these offspring of undocumented people seeking a better way of life.
“Events like this energize people to be active and we provide the materials for them to go out and do it. It’s the only way to get people to know what’s going on,” she said. “Programs like this show that they are not alone and there are things they can do to make things better. The last major push we had to try and pass the DREAM Act was in 2010 and there were so many Dreamers who worked so hard to try and lobby to get this passed into law. They were there for the vote in caps and gowns and we were in tears when it didn’t pass. It was traumatic for us. And some of them went on with their daily lives instead of continuing to fight and we have to continue to fight. There was nothing else for me to do but keep going.”
Since being initially introduced in 2001, the DREAM Act has come on the floor for a vote five separate times and helped spawn the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an American immigration policy that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. And while all this was part of the conversation, the main thrust of the Dreamer’s Conference was a series of breakout sessions that focused on college preparation, the application process and financial aid, knowing your rights, career planning and scholarships for dreamers and getting active in your community.
As a former Cuban refugee who came to this country when he was two, NCC Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Jorge Gardyn firmly supports the joint efforts being made by the college and LIISA with events like this.
“As an immigrant to this country, I live the American Dream every day because of the excellent educational opportunities that I received here. Nassau Community College’s mission is to provide those opportunities for our students—no matter their immigration status—and I am proud that we are partnering with the Long Island Immigrant Student Association and welcoming the Dreamer’s Conference once again to our campus,” he said “I had a chance to speak to these young people and let them know about the opportunity that this country gives. It’s not easy and you have to work it, but that’s what this country gives us. In our adopted country, education is the roadway to success and moving on.”
Former LIISA board member George Siberon has helped spearhead these Dreamers Conferences, of which there have been three with this being the second being held at NCC. This was the first year that the school went beyond just being the site for the conference and actually became invested by providing staff from admissions, financial aid and advisement to speak personally with the attending students. Siberon was pleased with the turnout and is aiming to bring in around 500 students next year, something that could have been achieved this time around were it not for space limitations. He was adament about the importance of an event like this.
“A day like today is important because it exposes these young people to the opportunities and possibilities of coming to this particular community college or any other one and how it can allow them to dream like anybody else,” he said. “It’s even more crucial for our young people, particularly those that are undocumented and those that are listening to what the government is saying about the possibility of deportation. The fact is that many of them do aspire to go on to college and have a better life for themselves and what they have to do is to continue to do exactly what they are doing. These are kids that have not been involved in gangs or drugs and they have lived the American Dream. I think what we need to do and why something like this is important, is to let them know that there are folks like us and others that believe in them and want to help them reach their full potential.”
Visit www.liisaedu.org to find out more about LIISA.