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Salt Lake Community College opens state's second Dream Center

WEST VALLEY CITY — For Humberto Sanchez Conejo, the path to higher education has not been an easy one.

Though South Salt Lake has been his home since before he was 2, he was born in the town of Irapuato in Guanajuato, Mexico.

"There was always a plan of action for us," Sanchez Conejo said about his family, noting that he has been aware of his documentation status since he was 4 or 5 years old.

Salt Lake Community College's West Valley Center is pictured on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
Salt Lake Community College's West Valley Center is pictured on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"My parents would be like, 'If anything happens to any of us, this is where you go,'" he said, explaining he was given the address of a relative who he was to report to if his parents were taken by U.S. immigration officials.

Sanchez Conejo is currently protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, but, like thousands of other noncitizen students in the United States, he does not qualify for federal grant or loan programs.

On Friday he told his story at a ceremony opening a new Dream Center at Salt Lake Community College's West Valley campus.

The Dream Center, an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, will help provide scholarships and academic advice to undocumented students through private donations and grants. It is the second in the state, since the first one opened at the University of Utah in 2017.

Sanchez Conejo said he started working in landscaping immediately after graduating high school. Despite limited financial means, he originally planned to start his studies at the University of Utah because, at the time, it hosted the only Dream Center in the state.

"I just wanted to go to school, period, and I thought that was my only choice," he said.

Humberto Sanchez Conejo talks about what he hopes to achieve as an undocumented student during the opening of Salt Lake Community College's Dream Center at the college's West Valley Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
Humberto Sanchez Conejo talks about what he hopes to achieve as an undocumented student during the opening of Salt Lake Community College's Dream Center at the college's West Valley Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

However, the center's director, Alonso Reyna Rivarola, advised him that Salt Lake Community College would be more accessible given his financial situation. Rivarola placed him in contact with advisers at the college who were able to help him get funding for tuition.

Both centers will now work together to secure funding for students and help students at the community college who wish to transfer to the state university after graduation.

Idolina Quijada, Salt Lake Community College coordinator for the West Valley campus, said the college has offered scholarships to undocumented students for years, but without a center to operate from, many students like Sanchez Conejo were unaware of the resource.

"I still see students every day that are undocumented that don't know that they can come to college while they are undocumented," she said, noting the importance of having the center in one of the state's most diverse cities. "If you know West Valley, you know our community needs us."

Sanchez Conejo has been studying sociology and communications at SLCC since fall 2017. He said although it's difficult to pay tuition without federal support, he has been able to do so thanks to scholarships for undocumented and Latino students.

As he spoke at the event, Sanchez Conejo teared up when describing how it feels to be a Latino student in today's political climate.

"As much as I feel your love today, I feel their hate," he said, adding "I feel it at home when I'm watching the news and they are calling us animals and then treating us as such."

College coordinator Idolina Quijada cuts the ribbon for Salt Lake Community College's Dream Center at the college's West Valley Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
College coordinator Idolina Quijada cuts the ribbon for Salt Lake Community College's Dream Center at the college's West Valley Center on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"Sometimes just walking around campus you see some of the posters people put up," he said referencing recent incidents of white supremacist propaganda being placed on campuses across the state.

Sanchez Conejo said the center will now provide a refuge from the "hate" which he often feels. "We can have our own space for us to connect and support each other," he said, adding that "we have to keep our chins up."

"This is the beginning of a new era for Utah," said Rivarola. He pointed out that Utah is now the "third state in the country with the most Dream centers." There are 59 total centers in the nation, he said, and while California has 48 and Texas has three, many other states only have one.

During the event, Curtis Larsen, the college's assistant vice president for student services, spoke of the significance of the monarch butterfly's migration patterns as a symbol of the plight of undocumented students.

"It's a multigenerational migration that begins in the summer months up in Canada or some of the northern states in the U.S., and each year in the fall, they fly all the way south into Mexico or the areas of California to overwinter."

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new center, a number of monarch butterflies were released outside the building.

"What I hope is that this Dream Center can serve as the milk leaf (on which the monarch caterpillars feed) that nourishes our students, our community members who are undocumented," said Larsen.