Maria Gabriela “Gaby” Pacheco had just started eighth grade when one of her two older sisters came home crying after trying to register at the local community college.

Erika had been denied admission because, as an undocumented person in Florida, she didn’t have all of her “papers.” Resigned to her fate, the teenager just started looking for any kind of job a high school graduate could get.

A few years later, after she graduated from high school, Gaby was denied admission, too. She also cried, but didn’t give up.

Instead, she returned to Miami Dade College (MDC) again and again by six o’clock in the morning so she could be the first in line at the admission office, praying every time she would come across a sympathetic administrator. “And so finally I was able to find somebody who said, ‘I’m going to help you,’” she recalled during a recent phone interview. “And she did.”

On an international student visa, Gaby earned two associate degrees in music education and early childhood education, and then went on to get a bachelor’s degree at MDC in K-12 special education, all in six years.

To pay the higher out-of-state fees and unable to apply for federally funded Pell grants and student loans — even though her Ecuadorian family has lived in Miami since 1993, when she was just eight — she tutored other students, did translations, babysat and even held car washes off campus at her Christian church. She also worked on campus, writing grants and helping to administer programs among other tasks.

Along the way, she became a student government advisor as well as a dedicated activist for immigration reform. In 2005, she founded Students Working for Equal Rights, a Florida immigrant youth network.

“I didn’t have a lot of free time,” she admitted with a chuckle.

Gaby went on to lead a “Trail of Dreams” four-month campaign walk from Miami to the nation’s capital. And in 2012, she helped to persuade the Obama administration to initiate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, halting the deportation of young immigrants brought to the United States illegally. She was the first young Latina, in fact, to address Congress.

Then the motivated young adult became a founding co-director of the Bridge Project, connecting individuals from across the political spectrum to achieve immigration reform.

n‘Partner’ colleges

Gaby Pacheco’s latest effort at immigration reform is directing programs at a new scholarship fund targeting undocumented immigrant students who aren’t eligible for federal financial aid to attend college. The 29-year-old woman says she is only paying back for her own good fortune.

“When I graduated from college, I made the promise that I was going to make sure that other people like me had the opportunity that I had — to pay it forward,” she said. “It’s truly amazing to see your dreams come true. And we’re going to be impacting the lives of so many people. It’s really fulfilling.”

TheDream.US was the brainstorm of Donald Graham, CEO of Graham Holdings Company and former publisher of The Washington Post; Henry Muñoz III, a Texas businessman, philanthropist and social activist; and Carlos Gutierrez, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush, last year.

Forty-three undocumented students participated in a pilot national scholarship fund to help these young people receive a quality college education leading to a useful degree. (Currently, only 19 states, including California, allow in-state tuition for undocumented students. Moreover, these students can’t receive any federal financial aid.)

Applications are now being accepted for the first inaugural TheDream.US class, who will be attending “partner” colleges across the nation, including Long Beach City College and Cal State University, Long Beach. These institutions of higher learning are committed to serving low-income students by offering academic and social support services to help them graduate. Specifically, every student will have a special designated advisor.

The partner institutions have also agreed to provide associate’s and bachelor’s career-ready degrees with total tuition and fee costs of only $12,500 and $25,000, respectively, with TheDream.US picking up the tab.  

More than $25 million in scholarships have been raised for so-called “Dreamers,” who because of the DACA program can remain in the United States without fear of being deported.

“The Dreamers I know are very highly motivated; they want an education, and many want the chance to be of service to others,” said Graham at the scholarship’s kickoff event in Washington, D.C., in early February. “But they often face countless roadblocks to college achievement.

“With support from our partner institutions and from civic leaders across the country, TheDream.US is building a new movement to remove these roadblocks and make higher education a reality for thousands of undocumented immigrants. We’re making a down payment on our country’s future by helping these young Americans achieve the American Dream.”

Co-founder Carlos Gutierrez pointed out, “Absent of passage of the DREAM Act or other breakthroughs in immigration policy, thousands of eager young people will be unable to achieve their academic dreams. We are not waiting for Washington to solve these challenges.

“Instead, individuals dedicated to a brighter future for all young Americans have come together to create a national movement that will empower immigrant youth through education, as we believe that college access is vital to Dreamers’ ability to contribute to their families, their communities and the future of this nation.”

Said Henry Mu√±oz: “I live in a place where every day I am reminded about the importance of the immigrant experience to the future of our country. Dreamers are our neighbors, our friends and for many of us, they are family. They face extreme obstacles to success, but like so many who have come before them, they possess great promise, if only given a chance to participate in the American Dream.”

Manuel Luna was one of the pilot scholarship recipients. The 18-year-old Dreamer came to the United States from Mexico when he was three, growing up in Brooklyn. All he could afford to take was one or two classes a semester at Kingsborough College in New York.

He knew at that rate it would take forever to earn a four-year degree and then, hopefully, go onto law school to be a lawyer. But then he found out about TheDream.US from a college counselor.

“I got approved two days before Christmas,” Luna told a Scripps Howard wire reporter. “It was the best Christmas present ever.”    

nMore than $25 million

When the president of the new TheDream.US started fundraising last fall, she was pleasantly surprised. With all the controversy over immigration reform, she wasn’t sure how individual donors and foundations would react. “What we discovered is there is little disagreement that what is happening with these young immigrants right now is not right and needs to be fixed,” Candy Marshall told The Tidings.

In short order, the new immigrant scholarship fund has raised more than $25 million. Major supporters besides Donald and brother Bill Graham have been her former employer, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Bloomberg Philanthropies and Inter-American Development Bank.

The scholarship endeavor has been popular across party lines, too, with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Jeb Bush, backing it.

“Our view on this issue is that we need to exist for a moment in time, until the Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform, with granting federal financial aid to undocumented students as one part of it,” Marshall explained. “And our goal is to raise $50 million total, so we can give 2,000-plus scholarships over the course of four to five years. But that will take 10 years of funding. So we refer to it as a ‘decade of Dreamer scholars.’”

The graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law is especially interested in reaching out to Catholic colleges and universities because of the church’s steadfast support of immigrants’ rights in America and quality institutions of higher learning.

“A number of faith-based organizations — and definitely Roman Catholics — have stepped up to say, ‘Immigration reform is absolutely essential,’” she stressed. “And we’re not just about getting these students into college; we’re about getting them out of college with degrees. Catholic colleges do that.”

The deadline to apply for college scholarships from TheDream.US is March 31. Applicants must: be a first-time college student applying to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program at a “partner” college; have a GPA of 2.5 or higher (or equivalent GED score); and be DACA eligible and have applied for or received DACA approval.