In high school, Moses Chege worked to stand out from other college applicants.
He was on the varsity cross-country team, joined junior ROTC and was a worship leader at his church. He participated in Running Start at Tacoma Community College, receiving his associate’s degree a few months after his high school graduation.
“By my senior year, I kind of created that like, all-American college profile,” he said.
But when Chege started applying to colleges, he realized higher education might still be out of his grasp. He wasn’t eligible for most financial aid, or to attend a military academy, for one reason: He was not a legal U.S. resident.
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“(I) couldn’t go to the Naval Academy, couldn’t receive an ROTC scholarship. No federal grants, no state grants, no private student loans,” he said. “Unless I could come up with 20 grand, college just wasn’t going to happen.”
Chege is among the estimated thousands of students in Washington who face considerable hurdles to getting college degrees because they were brought to the country illegally as children.
As Congress continues to debate whether to give such students legal residency, Washington state has taken steps to make higher education more financially accessible. A decade ago, state lawmakers made the children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition rates. This year, they followed up by extending state financial aid to those students.
Chege was one of the forces behind the latest change.
The 19-year-old was born in Nairobi, Kenya. His family immigrated to the United States when he was 6 years old. When his father’s student visa expired, they decided to remain in the U.S. to keep working and give their kids a chance at an education.
Chege grew up in Tacoma and graduated from Stadium High School in 2013. He hasn’t been back to Kenya since his family left in 2001.
“I have a Kenyan heritage, but I was raised in the United States,” he said.
While some colleges and universities offer financial aid to noncitizens, funds are limited. “Even a lot of the private scholarships don’t allow you to apply unless you’re a citizen or a permanent resident,” Chege said.
When Chege realized he didn’t have the same opportunities as other students for financial aid, he decided to delay college a year and instead focus on political lobbying. He became leader of the Washington State Dream Act Coalition, a group of students that lobbied the Legislature to give the children of illegal immigrants access to state financial aid.
“I think when I showed up (to Sen. Barbara Bailey’s office) in my junior ROTC uniform, it kind of changed the face of who was getting the state need grant, and who was being shut out of the higher education system in Washington state,” Chege said.
“They (politicians) start to see them (undocumented students) less and less as some ‘illegals,’ quote-unquote, and more like students just trying to make it.”
Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, was initially a critic of the legislation, known previously as the Dream Act. This year, she became a prime sponsor of an identical measure, the Real Hope Act, that passed the Legislature.
Bailey said she remembered speaking with Moses as well as other students, but that “it wasn’t really the students as much as it was trying to make sure we could find some real results” that changed her mind. The state need grant program was already so underfunded that 32,000 other qualified students were not receiving aid. So Bailey’s proposal included $5 million to expand the state need grant program to help accommodate the newly eligible students.
“I didn’t want a hollow promise,” Bailey said.
On Feb. 26, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Real Hope Act, making Washington the fourth state to extend eligibility to state financial aid to students who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Schools are encouraging those students to complete applications for aid by Thursday. To apply, students must have graduated from a Washington high school or have obtained a GED. They also must have lived in the state for three years prior to and since earning their high school diploma or equivalent.
“If you’re in our communities and you’re working hard and you’re contributing and paying taxes, then I think you should get some of the benefits of the other taxpayers that you’re living next to,” said state Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who was a longtime supporter of the Dream Act.
Chege said the $5 million the Legislature budgeted to help the state need grant program was a “drop in the bucket” compared to the need, but said the bill was never about funding.
It was about equality of opportunity.
“There are some nontangible things that are very valuable that come with that,” Chege said. “Knowing that if you went to a Washington state high school, you have the same shot as the guy sitting next to you. The game isn’t rigged from the beginning.”
His mission in Olympia completed, Chege plans to attend Whitworth University in Spokane in the fall. But he won’t need a state need grant to do so.
In January, he received an Act 6 scholarship for emerging leaders from the Northwest Leadership Foundation in Tacoma. The award covers all of his costs.