Keep America DREAMing

There are many good people in this world. Sometimes, in our busy lives and in the midst of political turmoil, we forget that simple fact. Earlier this year, a unique partnership of public and private philanthropists announced, a $25 million scholarship fund created for undocumented students – students known throughout the U.S. as the DREAMers, a name derived from the DREAM Act, federal legislation with varying iterations that has attempted to address this issue for years, to unsuccessful results.

As president of a university in South Texas that is home to one of the highest number of DREAMers in the nation, I see every day the amazing accomplishments and the grit and determination of these students. is providing these students full scholarships so that the dreams of these inspiring students – and their parents – may be realized.

There are over 1.8 million DREAMers in our nation.  At my institution, The University of Texas-Pan American, 700-plus DREAMers are pursuing their degrees without any federal support since the DREAMers are not eligible for Pell Grants or federal loans.  They persevere precisely because in a very literal sense they are true dreamers.  With the help of innovative partnerships such as, and because of our vocal efforts keeping this issue at the forefront of higher education discussions in the national arena, we are making tremendous progress to help their dreams come true.

I first encountered the plight of DREAMers during my prior tenure at The University of Texas at Dallas, but the volume and the magnitude of our UT Pan American students’ stories have both haunted and inspired me.

One of the most tragic and unfortunate circumstances is the secret, stark reality that faces so many undocumented students as they complete their degrees. There is no ideal job waiting for them after graduation. There are no recruiters or headhunters knocking on their doors.  Lifetime dreams and aspirations are crushed even as they walk across the stage to receive their degrees, many times with highest honors.

With no legal documents to qualify them for lawful employment in the United States, undocumented college graduates are forced into taking jobs “off the books” and doing menial labor way below their qualifications and for wages far below their worth.  For years, not only along the U.S./Mexico border but across the country, these students have been trapped in a unique juxtaposition of the freedom that comes with an educated mind and the fear of an uncertain future.

At UT Pan American, one of my highest priorities has been to provide leadership and support to help find a way to give these students back their dreams; thankfully, I have not been alone.  With the help of various leaders and officials, numerous activist organizations, and the personal narratives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented students and their families, a loud and persistent movement is giving hope to the DREAMers. We have had multiple conversations with key legislative players in Washington, D.C.; we have told story after story of students’ strengths and potential; we have helped to stir up public opinion across the country via mass media and social media outlets. More and more, I am beginning to believe that we are going to see some sort of comprehensive immigration reform.  But we must not let up – the dreams of our DREAMers are at stake.

Already, there has been major progress. This summer marks the first anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, which provides the Dreamers an avenue for lawful employment without fear of deportation. In fact, two UT Pan American student organizations now provide assistance for fellow students to fill out and file DACA applications, and we are proud that our university has been able to hire several DREAMers who are now eligible to work. scholarship further augments the positive headway being made for DREAMers. I am proud to say that UT Pan American was one of the first 12 universities to qualify under this program, and we are thrilled that this fall we will have, for the first time, DREAMers with full-time, four-year scholarships.

Each semester, I get to shake the hands of our DREAMers as they graduate.  My dream is that some day soon they will be given the same chances that are being given to their classmates.  I dream that federal legislators will recognize the urgency of this situation and will follow the example of’s innovative and trailblazing solution. I dream that our lawmakers will finalize the DREAM Act legislation and establish a path to citizenship for these bright, self-motivated graduates.  Yes, there are good people in this world, but we need many more to see what is right and what is just. Our work is not yet done.  I urge everyone to help America to keep DREAMing.

The University of Texas-Pan American, located in Edinburg, Texas, just miles from the U.S./Mexico border, is one of the leading Hispanic-serving institutions in the nation, graduating the third highest number of Hispanic students in the country, behind universities whose overall enrollment is two and three times that of UT Pan American.

By Dr. Robert Nelsen