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Kansas City Undocumented Student Uses Her 'Inner Fire' To Get To College

Kyle Palmer
KCUR 89.3
A senior at Alta Vista Charter High School, Brittany has a big decision ahead of her.

Brittany admits this is a risk: telling her story, being so public. As a nod to that risk, she only wants her first name used. But along with her fear, there's something else: anger. 

"I want to be as honest as possible," she says. "It's what I'm going through, what many other kids like me [in Kansas City] are going through, and it's something we don't talk about: it's ignored, it's in the shadows, and it shouldn't be like that." 

Brittany calls it her "status". When she was eight, Brittany's mother brought her to the U.S. illegally from their hometown in Mexico to join her father, who had already been in Kansas City several years working. She's now lived in Kansas City longer than she did in Mexico. She speaks English devoid of any accent.

But she has no Social Security number. She carries no driver's license. For nearly a decade, she's been "undocumented", though she doesn't like that slippery term. 

"To be honest, I don't think it's insulting. But it's in the way that people are saying it. It's used as an insult. They use it vaguely without understanding what it means for me." 

She's eighteen now, a senior at Kansas City's Alta Vista Charter High School. Some teachers there say she's the best the school has ever had. And she has racked up an impressive list of college options. She's been accepted to Rockhurst University, the University of Dayton in Ohio, and the College of St. Mary, a small Catholic all-women's school in Omaha. In addition, she's applied to Vanderbilt, Yale, Swarthmore, and Brown. 

Brittany admits she's lucky. She says she has cousins in Mexico who dropped out of high school. Other friends here in Kansas City with a "status" like her's who don't have the choices she has. That, in part, is why she's angry. 

"Everyone should know what we have to go through just to achieve the things other kids can just go and do."

Overcoming obstacles  

There's some things most students with a resume like Brittany's do when they are preparing to apply for college. 

First, they fill out the federal FAFSA form to expedite financial aid. Brittany can't because she lacks a Social Security number. 

Other seniors may apply for scholarships, especially if they have good grades and above-average test scores. Britney has been disqualified from many potential scholarships because they require legal American residence. 

Beyond scholarships, other seniors rely on institutional aid to pay significant chunks of their tuition. Brittany is barred by Missouri law from getting this type of help (at least from public colleges.) 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Her friends say Brittany (right) is competitive and driven to succeed in everything she does.

"I've just worked my butt off. Coming from where I come from, even graduating high school is prestigious," she says. "Thinking back to when I crossed [the border] with my mom, I knew she trusted me to make the most of the experiences and opportunities I was given. I couldn't let that go to waste." 

Brittany's college counselor at Alta Vista John Kearney says Brittany has stood out for the tenacity with which she has pursued the limited chances she's had. 

"She has such strong character and a clear narrative of who she is and why she wants to go to college," he says. "She has made herself into a very attractive candidate." 

For instance, last year Brittany participated in a summer program at the College of St. Mary. Kearney says it helped her meet professors and students at the school, which caters to Latinas, many of whom have legal status similar to Brittany's. 

"They knew her, knew what kind of student she was, had put a face with a name when she applied this year," he says. 

Last month, the college offered Brittany what amounts to a full ride through a program called the Misericordia Grant, meant especially for students who had been brought here illegally as children. 

"It's an unbelievable opportunity," she says, maybe the best she's been offered. "It's extremely rare that a school recognizes students like me and the effort we have to put in, when many other schools just ignore it." 

And yet...

Surveying the competition

Her teachers at Alta Vista speak of an inner fire that burns in Brittany, unlike many other students who work just as hard and are just as genuine and likeable as she is. 

"I'd call it gumption," says Katie Laird, who has taught Brittany English for three years at Alta Vista. "She's bold. She knows the deck is stacked against her but she still just goes about trying to knock down these barriers. I wish more students were as angry as she is." 

This fire comes out when Brittany talks about an experience at Rockhurst University earlier this year. She participated in a group interview for a major scholarship, worth more than $20,000 per year in the end. Kids from all over the nation came to compete. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
She spends nearly every Saturday at a local non-profit called MINDDRIVE, working on electric car projects.

"I learned my competition that day," she says, a smirk on her face. "I saw only one other Hispanic student there, and he was, like third or fourth-generation. All these kids who are really bright. Some of them have had private education, taken all these tutoring classes, prepped for years for the ACT. And then there was me." 

She got the scholarship. A generous offer that still leaves her nearly $15,000 short of annual tuition costs. She's received a similar offer from the University of Dayton. Options keep piling up. 

And yet...

Culture shock

Brittany's fire comes out when she talks about when she first arrived in Kansas City. It was a "culture shock", she says. She was in fourth grade and walked into class with an optimistic bluster because she had attended a school in Mexico that had taught English. 

"I knew how to say 'Heeeey,' and 'Where is the bathroom?' But I had a really harsh accent, and kids made fun of me," she says. Even worse: "They called me 'wetback.'"

Again, a smirk. She stares off into the middle distance, a fire in her eyes. Then she says: "But they call me a 'wetback', while I'm doing the Pythagorean theorem, and they didn't know that yet. Or they make fun of my accent, but if they heard a song by Bach they don't know it but I did." 

Here, the crux again of Brittany's personality: the fire, the anger, that gumption. 

A 'no-brainer' 

If elementary school was a culture shock, Brittany admits college will be an even bigger one. She says she's clashed with her mom during her college search. She's uneasy with the idea of her only daughter moving away. 

"It's really the schools — like Vanderbilt, or Yale — that are eight hours away. Twelve hours away. She knows I will make the choice that is best for me, but she still is afraid," she says. 

Which means her mom might rest a little easier now. Brittany, just this past week, finalized her choice to go to College of St. Mary in Omaha, the school that specializes in teaching young Latinas. The one that gave her a full-ride scholarship. 

It was a "no-brainer", she says. And yet...

"I didn't get into Yale," she admits, a steely note in her voice.  

That inner fire remains. 

A former teacher, Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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