Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"Robots, Teenagers and College. Oh my!"

This post was intended as a stand-alone piece discussing the Arizona Republic's coverage this weekend of the four undocumented students who won last year's national robotic's competition. As I wrote, I concluded that one post of around 500-600 words just wouldn't cover it. There are a lot of issues and questions raised within the context of the broader discussion. This will be post one of a series devoted to the discussion of those larger issues.

The Republic weighs in with a feature on the four West Phoenix teenagers that stunned the engineering world, winning the national robotics competition last summer. I wrote about the original feature in Wired magazine earlier this month.

It was an inspiring story, interesting in many ways. My biggest take-away from the piece was the question of immigration, schooling and how do you find a way to move human capital into the 'system.' The Republic picks up there and runs with it.

After recounting the status of the four winners, the article addresses the issue of undocumented students and college finances: Undocumented students who have lived in Arizona for at least a year qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges, which is currently about $4,000. House Bill 2030 initially called for banning undocumented students from public colleges and universities. It has been revised to allow them to attend at the higher out-of-state tuition, which costs about $13,000 a year.

Undocumented students do not qualify for state, federal or institutional aid, such as grants, loans, scholarships and work-study programs, regardless of how long they've lived in the state. Money is a huge barrier for such students.

When we left the two graduated team members, Luis Aranda and Oscar Vasquez, we saw them running into this wall; lots of brain power but no opportunity to take advantage because they could not finance a college-education. Nothing changed until some locals and other interested parties took notice of the situation:

The other two students, Aranda, 19, and Vasquez, 18, graduated from Carl Hayden last May. It was their stories that struck a chord around the world. After beating MIT, Aranda took a job as a file clerk and Vasquez worked in drywall. Vasquez juggles a 30-hour workweek with part-time coursework at Phoenix College. But life is easier since the head of a local insurance company learned of his struggles and offered him a desk job. Thanks to the scholarship fund, Vasquez plans to enroll full-time next semester to pursue a mechanical engineering degree.

Aranda is still an office file clerk. He plans to enroll in business courses this fall to fulfill his dreams of opening a restaurant and buying his parents a home.

Personal initiative has 'rescued' these two and provided an opportunity for their brain-power to be absorbed into the system. In a number of years these two bright boys will be contributing to society in the normal, healthy way; earning a living, paying taxes and engaging in all sorts of daily transactions that keep an economy healthy. The question is, is there a way to make this happen on a larger scale, a way to 'institutionalize' the assimilation of talented immigrants into the mainstream?

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