Ingenuity brightens future
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 23, 2005 12:00 AM
Doors finally open for 4 Phoenix migrant youths a year after beating MIT in
Last summer, four students from Carl Hayden High School stunned educators and
engineers when they won a national robotics competition, beating teams from the
best universities in the country.
Maneuvering "Stinky," an underwater robot built from plastic irrigation pipes,
the Phoenix team edged out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's
state-of-the-art robot in a seven-part obstacle course at the bottom of
University of California-Santa Barbara's swimming pool.
Their victory had a bitter twist. All four are Mexican immigrants from poor
Phoenix neighborhoods, and it seemed that none could use the achievement as a
step toward earning a university degree.
But all that changed after an article in the April Wired magazine shared their
unlikely victory. Offers of support came in from around the world. In the
article, the four were described as undocumented immigrants, which prevents them
from qualifying for financial assistance.
Luis Aranda, Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan and Oscar Vasquez illustrate the
exception when it comes to the fate of bright, undocumented high school
students. They find that achievement in high school means nothing when it comes
time for college because most can't afford tuition. And for the few who actually
earn a university degree, their undocumented status continues to stand in the
way of getting a job.
Many of these immigrant students are brought to this country as young children
by their parents. For them, the end of high school is like hitting a brick wall.
Oscar Vasquez, 18, won't discuss his immigration status but said, "It's like
they open the door to the American dream by encouraging you to do well in (high)
school, and then they slam it shut by making it so difficult to attend college.
But is that fair, if you have the potential and are willing to work hard to make
In the polarized immigration debate, many view a smart, undocumented high school
graduate as no different from an undocumented laborer: undocumented and
undeserving. For others, the students represent potential engineers, doctors and
other professionals too valuable to toss away.
The Robotics Four
The Wired article on the four Carl Hayden students appeared about five weeks
ago. Since then, nearly $53,000 has poured into a "La Vida Robot Scholarship
Fund" opened after hundreds of people e-mailed Wired and Carl Hayden High School
offering financial assistance to the boys.
The story of the four students has been picked up and repeated in both English-
and Spanish-language television newscasts, newspapers, magazines and science
periodicals. Up next, segments on National Public Radio and ABC's Nightline.
Warner Bros. has purchased rights for a movie.
Arcega, 16, and Santillan, 17, are juniors and still members of Carl Hayden's
Falcons robotics team. Both are competing this weekend at the FIRST Robotics
National Competition in Atlanta and are eager to defend their National ROV
Competition for High School & College Students title in Houston in June.
Of the four, Santillan has made the most academic progress. Once a failing
student more interested in hanging out with gang members, Santillan had to raise
his grades to qualify for last year's remotely operated underwater-vehicle
contest. He is now passing all classes and beams with pride over his "A" in
math. The scholarship fund has prompted plans to study engineering in college.
Arcega, the youngest of the four, is a straight-A student with a 4.56 grade
point average known for his writing ability and sharp critical-thinking skills.
He has received a full-ride, four-year scholarship offer from the California
Institute of Technology and dreams of becoming an engineer and being the first
in his family to graduate from college.
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
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. The shy teen still shakes his head in amazement while discussing the
Robotics Four's good fortunes.
"We really didn't expect any of this," he said. "But I'm amazed that people have
such good hearts and care enough to want to help us get educated. I can't
express how much that really means to all of us."
Bright, undocumented students have reason to be surprised. Past proposals to
help them qualify for college have all died in Congress. In Arizona, there is
currently a state bill that would make it even harder.
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.
Arizona has about 161,000 English-language learners. Education officials
estimate that half of those students are undocumented and most come from
low-income families struggling to pay their bills. Without access to in-state
tuition, much less financial aid, money for college is out of the question.
"These are families that are truly hurting, so $4,000 a year might as well be
$400,000 a year," said Josué González, executive director for Arizona State
University's ENLACE program, which works to recruit and retain minority
students. "This is why so many Latino high school students drop out. . . . They
see the financial burden as insurmountable."
Arizona's Latino high school dropout rate is about 30 percent, nearly twice the
national percentage and one of the highest rates in the country.
Some states, including California and Texas, have already passed laws granting
undocumented students the cheaper in-state tuition. At least 20 other states
have considered or are considering similar legislation.
The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., estimates about 65,000 undocumented
students annually graduate from U.S. high schools. How many of them enroll in a
U.S. college or university is unknown.
A bill in Congress called the Dream Act would allow undocumented students who
graduated from U.S. high schools to become legal permanent residents. Supporters
believe giving students and their families a shot at in-state tuition would
help. But political observers say the bill will likely die because of the
current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., group pushing for
tighter immigration reform, opposes the act. Executive Director Mark Krikorian
said offering in-state tuition to undocumented students is unfair to those who
enter the country legally with student visas. As in other states, Arizona's
international students pay out-of-state tuition.
"It rewards people for being in the United States illegally," he said. "It also
focuses on the most photogenic group of illegal aliens to create momentum for
amnesty for other illegals. These students should be deported."
Although college-bound undocumented students face many obstacles, deportation is
not one of them. The Department of Homeland Security's focus is on fortifying
the border and intercepting criminals who cross illegally, said Lori Haley,
spokeswoman for the agency's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm.
"To go after high school students just because of their status is very rare,"
she said. "Now, if they were involved in criminal activity, that would be a
Those undocumented students who somehow find the money and make it through
college hit a similar set of obstacles when they graduate.
Potential employers will ask for a Social Security card as part of the routine
job-application process. Some college graduates buy fake cards. But teachers and
university officials who work with undocumented students say most balk when it
comes to purchasing fake IDs.
"It's an awful Catch-22 because these are good kids who don't want to break the
law," said Intel engineer Daniel Cartagena, who mentors students through ASU's
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers chapter. "But they know they won't be
able to work without their papers."
Of the 24,000 students in the Phoenix Union High School District, 75 percent are
Latino. Fredi Lajvardi, a teacher at Carl Hayden and one of the robotics team
advisers, knows that a good many of the students are undocumented and that they
see the obstacles.
"The kids often confide their fears, and it breaks your heart," he said. "These
are kids who had no say in coming here but are now being penalized by this
two-tiered educational system. That's just not right."
Lajvardi and fellow teacher Allan Cameron, another robotics team adviser,recall
Dulce, an undocumented student who started her freshman year at Carl Hayden. She
hoped to graduate and planned to work as a waitress.
But when she joined the robotics team, Dulce discovered a passion for
engineering, and her aspirations grew. She is now completing her second year at
ASU as an honors student pursuing an electronics engineering degree.
Dulce is one of the lucky ones. She landed an internship at a top high-tech firm
in Chandler. The company plans to sponsor her to help Dulce obtain legal working
"That's a story with a happy ending," Cameron said. "But you can't help thinking
about the other kids, like Dulce, with real potential, that don't make it that
far because it all seems so hopeless."
Reach the reporter at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8212.