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National Dream University offers low-cost online courses for undocumented students

By Nicole Chiang

Aug. 13, 2012 6:05 a.m.

A one-year curriculum of low-cost online college courses, geared toward undocumented students, will be available in 2013 as part of an institution called the National Dream University, established in part by the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.

Undocumented students face financial and geographical challenges when pursuing higher education ““ problems the National Dream University aims to tackle, said Cyndi Bendezu, a UCLA alumna and member of the National Dream University teaching team.

Coursework will cost approximately $2,500 for the year, whereas one year’s tuition for UCLA costs $12,686, she said.

Though only 35 students will be accepted for the first year beginning in 2013, the university’s organizers hope to expand enrollment, depending on the program’s success this coming year, said Nancy Guarneros, a UCLA graduate and member of the National Dream University’s teaching team.

The program, which will begin in January 2013, is a collaboration between the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and the National Labor College, an institution that caters to union members, she said.

Though it is open to all students, the purpose of the program is to give undocumented students in particular the opportunity to learn about labor rights, and possibly become involved in social justice movements, said Kent Wong, director for the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and a teacher for the National Dream University.

Details such as credit offerings and class logistics are still in the process of being fully developed, Wong said.

The one-year program will be accredited through the National Labor College, and students can transfer the credits they receive upon completion to another university, Guarneros said.

But not all universities will accept credits completed through the National Dream University, Guarneros said.

“It is up to individual colleges whether they will accept these credits or not, which is a concern, but students need to be aware that they should check this beforehand,” Bendezu said. “Students need to be cognizant that this is not a four-year degree ““ it is merely a stepping-stone to higher education.”

The new online program’s curriculum draws from the federal DREAM Act and improvement opportunities for undocumented youth, which would give them the chance to obtain legal status by completing two years of college or serving in the military, Bendezu said.

The proposed legislation failed to pass in the United States Senate in both 2007 and 2010. Experts anticipate the issue will re-emerge in the upcoming presidential election.

Since the passage of the California Dream Act in 2011, however, undocumented individuals in California can qualify for in-state financial aid. Texas and other states have approved similar measures.

Seth Ronquillo, an undocumented third-year film and television student and former Daily Bruin Opinion columnist, said he feels the National Dream University will provide new opportunities for many people, but if he had to choose between the program or going to a four-year college, he would prefer the latter.

“This program opens up a lot of new doors for people without a lot of resources, but I’ve been lucky enough, especially because of California laws, that I am able to go to college,” Ronquillo said. “But other students don’t necessarily qualify for the same things as me.”

Ronquillo added that the curriculum’s focus on labor rights is a deterrent for him because he wants to explore other subject areas.

Even with the option of applying for financial aid in some states like California, the National Dream University is still more affordable than attending a higher education institution, such as the University of California, said Nadia Andrade, a third-year American literature and culture student who is also an intern at the UCLA DREAM Resource Center.

The idea of providing courses tailored for undocumented students is not new.

Freedom University in Athens, Georgia was established a year ago after the Georgia Board of Regents passed a ban to prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in the top five universities in Georgia, said Dana Bultman, professor of Spanish literature at Freedom University.

“Undocumented students began to fight against the ban, and when some professors asked how they could help, they said, “˜We want classes,'” she said. “That’s how it started ““ through the conversation and ideas of undocumented students struggling for an education.”

Freedom University does not yet offer college credit, but it is in the process of seeking accreditation, Bultman said.

While the National Dream University is just starting up and currently only provides one year of education, Guarneros said she hopes other places will be inspired to create similar programs.

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