How One High School Counselor Advises Undocumented Students For College

At Sharpstown High School counselor Natasha Sankovich works with senior Blanca Aguirre on her college essay. Sankovich encourages all her students to apply to college, no matter what their immigration status may be.
For high school seniors, the season for college applications is getting into full swing. At one high school here in Southwest Houston, counselors are making sure students apply — including some students with special circumstances.

At Sharpstown High School, college counselor Natasha Sankovich is helping senior Oliver Wilson get started on his college application.

“Have you heard of Texas Southern University? No? What school do you want to apply to?”

Sankovich looks like a college student herself. She’s 25 years old. She’s wearing black jeans with tan boots and a polka dot denim shirt.

They’re using the website ApplyTexas.org. Students can fill out one application and send it to any Texas public university.

One section can be a little tricky.

"So do you know your Social?"

"Uh huh."

"Do you have one?" Uh uh."

"Do you have a permanent resident number?”

"Like what’s that?"

"That means you have a card and it will say like I’m a permanent resident and it will have an A-number."

Oliver came to Houston from his native Liberia. He says he has this document at home and promises to bring it.

But sometimes students don’t have a social security number or a permanent resident card: They’re undocumented.

That doesn’t faze Sankovich.

“I just try and go about in a very, like, ‘Oh you have one? If you don’t, Ok, no big deal.’ Because a lot of students think sometimes because they’re not maybe from America or born in Texas or anything like that, they can’t go to college and that’s not true at all.”

By state law, undocumented students in Texas can apply to public colleges. They pay in-state tuition and also can qualify for state financial aid.

Sankovich says the process isn’t that different for them. They just have to submit an extra form testifying they’re a Texas resident.

Sankovich wants to make sure all her students have the chance to go to college.

It’s personal for her.

 “Both of my parents are first generation college students and they didn’t have any kind of guidance when they were in high school whatsoever. My mom’s high school counselor actually told her that she was not high school material and she should just be a secretary.”

Sankovich says she’s giving back when she advises her students.

But not all counselors are that informed or passionate.

Oscar Hernandez had a different experience. He graduated from Austin High School in 2005. He’s undocumented himself.

“And when I was in high school, it’s not the counselors in my opinion didn’t want to help, it’s just that they didn’t know the information available. And when they don’t know that, the students get misinformed and then the students don’t end up progressing.”

Hernandez didn’t go to college.

He’s now with the grassroots organization Own the DREAM.

He and another organizer Carolina Ramirez are training high school counselors to give undocumented students more information about college and their immigration status.

“Because we know that there are resources available and that going for higher education, lack of status shouldn’t stop you from that.”

Oscar Hernandez and Carolina Ramirez
Oscar Hernandez and Carolina Ramirez are both organizers with the group Own the DREAM. They say when they were in high school in Texas, counselors didn’t provide very much information to undocumented students. They are working now with high school counselors in the Greater Houston area to provide more information to undocumented students about college and options for their immigration status.

One resource is a guide from the College Board. It gives a state-by-state breakdown of the higher education laws for undocumented students.

Jeff Fuller directs student recruitment at the University of Houston. He’s also the next president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“A lot of times it’s going to vary by the both institutional decisions as well as the culture and the politics if you will within that state.”

Fuller says more Texas students realize they have options, thanks to grassroots organizations and educators.

But he says filling out the application is only half the battle.

He says the bigger issue is paying for college. Because undocumented students in Texas only qualify for state financial aid, he says they still run the risk of not being able to finance their education.

Last year, the average cost of attending a public college in Texas was more than $7,000.

Bio photo of Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for KUHF, including K-12 and higher education.

Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and regularly contributed to WLRN, the local NPR affiliate and Miami Herald news partner...