A New Journey Begins at the University of Miami for Dreamers

Iris Florez, assistant director at the University of Miami's Office of Undergraduate Admission guides DACA students.
By Jennifer Palma

Iris Florez, assistant director at the University of Miami's Office of Undergraduate Admission guides DACA students.

A New Journey Begins at the University of Miami for Dreamers

By Jennifer Palma
Through the U Dreamers program, DACA students find essential support as they pursue their college degrees, and a better future.

When they entered the United States as children, they never dreamed their lives would be part of a political debate. Yet today, Dreamers—as beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act—face uncertain futures in the only country they have ever called home.

Allowed to remain in the U.S. temporarily and welcomed into Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Dreamers are among the school district’s top performers. Despite their achievements, immigration limbo makes them ineligible for state or federal financial aid and, therefore, students must rely solely on merit-based scholarships to continue their education—a combination that can easily derail many dreams.

At the University of Miami, Iris Florez is well aware of the challenges faced by DACA students, and she has refused to let their status stand in the way of their education. As assistant director in UM’s Office of Undergraduate Admission, Florez, who came to the U.S. as a child from Colombia, knows well that the intricacies of the application process and the financial aid system are often difficult for families to navigate.

“Aside from the lack of support during the application process, DACA students have added concerns regarding their status and safety in the U.S.,” said Florez. “When facing the decision to pursue their dreams or protect the sanctity of the families, they often choose the latter.”

That is why Florez seized the opportunity to recognize, support and guide academically elite student leaders in Miami-Dade County through the U Dreamers program at UM. Established last December, the U Dreamers program is intended to meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need while they pursue a degree at the University. In its first year, the program received an overwhelming response within Miami-Dade County, and beginning fall 2018, the University will extend the U Dreamers program to eligible DACA high school and transfer students statewide.

“There is a great deal of enthusiasm at the University regarding the expansion of the U Dreamers program,” Florez said. “The ability to impact the lives of high-achieving DACA students throughout Florida will in turn enhance the University.”

Florez, who worked tirelessly with counselors and students to introduce the program, was involved from start to finish, ensuring that DACA students had the necessary support and direction during the process. While reviewing each applicant’s personal essays and applications, she learned that many of the students’ families fled their native lands to escape treacherous, inhumane conditions often tainted by violence and uncertainty. The students themselves were too young to grasp the severity of their situations, but, even today, the stories of their parents echo as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made and the importance of hard work. Although the details from each student differed, the goals were generally the same—create the opportunity to dream about, and achieve, better futures.

“The students that I had the opportunity to work with through the U Dreamers program are exceptional in many ways and reflect the mission of the University,” Florez said. “Aside from stellar academics, each one has been a pillar within their classrooms and communities, despite the challenges they have faced.”

A double alumna of UM, Florez can relate to many applicants on a much deeper level. Under the guidance of her hard-working single mother, she came to the U.S. in hope of a better future and increased opportunity, and was well aware that they would face obstacles along the way.

“As an immigrant who knew nothing about higher education in the U.S., my family’s lack of cultural capital and knowledge of the college search process prevented me from following a traditional path of enrolling in a four-year institution,” said Florez. “After three semesters at a community college, I transferred to the University of Miami to pursue a career in higher education and to help students navigate the college process in the same way that I would have wanted someone to help me.’’

Now, in her current role, Florez is able to do more than just help.

Soon after announcing the U Dreamers program in 2016, University President Julio Frenk reaffirmed his support for Dreamers in a series of actions and joined more than 600 college and university presidents nationwide to express higher education’s commitment to DACA students, staff and employees.

In a letter to the UM community, Frenk shared the University’s commitment to “sustaining a diverse and inclusive community where each of us belongs.”

“Miami, the city this University calls home, has long been a model in demonstrating the remarkable role immigrants and refugees can play in creating a dynamic and thriving community where everyone—regardless of race, religion, or country of origin—can contribute to prosperity and well-being in the United States and around the world,” he wrote. “This belief is at the heart of the University of Miami's dedication to creating and sharing knowledge that transcends national, ideological and cultural borders.”

Through the continued support of the University and the U Dreamers program, Florez is hopeful that DACA, students will have increased opportunities to attend UM and pursue their dreams.

As the spokesperson for the program, she continues to dedicate countless hours to better understand how the University can support and enhance the potential of Miami-Dade’s top-performing DACA students and now she will expand that guidance to students throughout the state.

To Florez, the potential of the U Dreamers program is limitless, and this fall, as the inaugural group of U Dreamers joins the UM community, she will be in close proximity to witness their dreams grow into significant and meaningful contributions that will benefit the country they call home.

For additional information on the U Dreamers program, please visit: www.miami.edu/dreamers.