DREAM.US Scholarship Makes a DACA Student's Dream Come True

Monday, January 30, 2023
Phoenix College alumna Sandra Quiroz next to retired Phoenix College Professor Ernest Villacaña at Sandra's graduation party.
Phoenix College alumna Sandra Quiroz assists another student at a Phoenix College STEM outreach event
Phoenix College alumna Sandra Quiroz at Phoenix College's 2020 drive-thru graduation ceremony
Phoenix College transfer student Sandra Quiroz at her ASU graduation with her nieces and nephews

En Español. When Sandra Quiroz attended Camelback High School, one of her teachers, who was a mechanical engineer, inspired her. "I liked the projects she talked about and the difference she made in people's lives," Sandra said. After attending several campuses within the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) district to pursue mechanical engineering, she ended up at Phoenix College (PC) because her friend suggested she take a class with Ernest Villicaña. "He is the reason I stayed at PC," Sandra said. "His classes were the best. He was an inspiration to me and has been supportive throughout this journey. I loved PC, where my passion for engineering grew." 

Recently retired, Professor Villicaña remembers when Sandra came to PC. "I interfaced with Sandra in two ways," he said. "She was a student in my engineering design courses, ECE 102 and 103. I also invited her to participate in outreach programs to support minority middle school young women interested in STEM. I wanted Sandra to view herself as a role model and crystalize her commitment to the engineering curriculum to see how she could impact others." 

Sandra came to the United States from Mexico when she was five years old and is undocumented. "When I graduated high school, there was no financial aid available to kids in my position," she said, "so I never thought I'd make it to ASU." In 2012, she applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program made possible by the DREAM Act passed during the Obama administration. Sandra kept renewing her application while in school, allowing her to work full-time and attend Phoenix College part-time.

In her last semester at PC, she applied for the DREAM.US scholarship in hopes of attending Arizona State University (ASU). The  scholarship provides financial support for highly motivated undocumented students who are eager to receive a college education. Most undocumented students find it difficult to afford college due to no federal aid, limited access to state aid, and the expense of out-of-state tuition.

To apply for the scholarship, Sandra wrote an essay responding to the prompt, How did you overcome adversity? She wrote about her mom suffering from a brain aneurysm. "[My mom's illness] changed my whole life," Sandra said. "It made me want to pursue my education even more." During the scholarship application process, Sandra had the support of her boyfriend and his family. "They would double-check my essay to make sure it was okay to submit." Sandra was awarded the scholarship in 2020. She didn't expect to win but acknowledged how many doors it opened for her.

On her way to ASU, Sandra switched from Mechanical to Civil Engineering. She credits PC Professor Villicaña for providing insight into the various engineering disciplines. She realized she enjoyed Civil Engineering more than Mechanical. Yet, the transition to ASU and her junior year of engineering was tough. "I was used to the smaller classes where the professors give you one-on-one attention. ASU is a whole new realm of students from different countries and backgrounds, and you must navigate through the system to find what works best for you. I struggled at the time, even with support, but I overcame the barriers."

Professor Villicaña, who also attended ASU as a transfer engineering student from Mesa Community College, said, "You don't know how challenging it will be until you experience it. Most community college students in engineering struggle; we lose 75% of them to other degree programs that aren't as demanding. Whereas PC professors focus on retention, ASU professors often focus on eliminating students in a competitive program." He advised Sandra to eat, breathe, live the engineering curriculum and ask her family to protect her time so she could bring a level of urgency and commitment to mastering the curriculum as if her hair was on fire every day. He noted junior year for a transfer student requires that level of concentration. Sandra agreed: "You have to dedicate your whole time to this curriculum to be successful." 

Sandra credits her nieces and nephews for motivating her to bring that level of dedication needed. "I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate from college and make sure they have someone to look up to. Whenever I became discouraged and thought I couldn't do the coursework, I would think about them. I set up a system to study and take notes and spent time with like-minded people who wanted to be successful." 

Sandra graduated from ASU on December 15, 2022. "The feeling of graduating from college and having your family there is just amazing," Sandra said. She now works full-time at the national engineering firm Kimley Horn. She interned at the company during the summer, and they offered her a full-time position in the Ideation Department, helping with the design of runways and reconstruction.

Sandra encourages anyone undocumented to consider applying for the DREAM.US scholarship. "You never know where it might lead," she said. "The scholarship allowed me to become somebody I always dreamed of becoming."