Unwelcome to America

Older Immigrant Students Say High School Admission Bettered Their Lives in U.S.

After a 74 investigation found new arrivals routinely turned away, some long for what they could have accomplished with a HS diploma.

By Jo Napolitano | June 19, 2024
Monica Venegas at Charleston Southern University in South Carolina where she attended classes on a partial scholarship. (Maxwell Vittorio)

Melvin Martinez was nearly 23 years old when he enrolled in the 12th grade at Rudsdale High School in Oakland, California.

Originally from El Salvador, he attempted school years earlier, entering the ninth grade at age 17. But he dropped out two and a half years later: Already a parent, he struggled with managing his studies and fatherhood.

“I didn’t think about it, if it was a good decision or a bad one,” Martinez said. But after toiling away at a local Mexican restaurant for years, not making any real progress in life, he came to regret the move. 

Three years after he quit school, his former math teacher came to his workplace by chance and asked Martinez how he was doing. When the young man said he lamented his decision to give up on his education, the teacher told him it wasn’t too late to re-enroll. 

Martinez knew it was his last chance: Half a decade older than his classmates, he took school seriously, earning straight A’s. Now 24, he is chipping away at business classes at the College of Alameda and encourages high schools across the country to open their doors to older, new arrivals like him.

“There are a lot of people who are very, very smart but don’t have the opportunity to continue school,” he said. “If we can help those guys who are very motivated to continue, let’s do it. It will be good for the country, too.”

But a 16-month-long undercover investigation of enrollment practices at 630 high schools across the country — in which The 74 tried to register a 19-year-old Venezuelan newcomer who spoke little English and whose education had been interrupted after ninth grade — revealed rampant refusals.

Our test teen, “Hector Guerrero,” was denied more than 300 times, including by 204 schools in the 35 states and the District of Columbia where high school attendance goes up to at least age 20. State education officials in almost all these locations separately confirmed to The 74 that a 19-year-old could not be turned away because of his age.

None of the 35 California high schools queried by The 74 accepted Hector: The state provides no protection for general education students who wish to enroll past 18, making Martinez’s experience all the more remarkable. 

The young man said he will never forget the teacher who encouraged him to re-register. 

“You may think those are little things that are not important, but in those little things, you can change people’s future,” he said. 

Martinez’s brother, Javier, understands that lesson well. Now 28 years old, he didn’t know he could have enrolled in high school when he came to the United States more than a decade ago. The network of recent immigrants who helped him secure work upon his arrival at 17 never mentioned the possibility, he said. He wishes someone had. 

Melvin Martinez and his brother, Javier, stand with a young family member. (Javier Martinez)

“I always said I wanted to go to high school, learn more English, learn something different,” he said. 

A house painter by trade, he would much rather work in gastronomy. 

“I would love to teach nutrition and how to cook, something like that,” he said. “I’d like to know more about the food in other countries.” 

But everyone told him that not having finished high school in America would make it nearly impossible for him to attend college. So, he’s adjusted his expectations to meet his opportunity. 

Alanys Zacarias, 22 from Venezuela, talks about being denied admission to high school. (Jo Napolitano)

Alanys Zacarias, 22, knows what it’s like to be trapped by the limits of her education. She was turned away by a South Carolina high school at age 18, she said, even though enrollment goes up to age 21 in that state, according to statute. She had already amassed the necessary paperwork and was preparing to get all of the required immunizations when the school dealt an unexpected blow. 

Alanys Zacarias, 22 and from Venezuela, inside the Walmart where she works part-time. (Jo Napolitano)

Zacarias, who learned English two years ago in part by watching 19 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, said her life would be much better today had staffers let her in. An ambitious climber who said she’s mastered new tasks with ease at both her jobs — one at a high-end pan factory, the other at a Charleston-area Walmart — Zacarias believes she would have already earned an associate’s degree or would be closing in on a bachelor’s.

Most importantly, she’d have the money to bring her mother and younger sister here from Venezuela, where daily life is a crushing struggle. The South American country’s annual inflation rate hit 190% last year. Water shortages and electrical outages are near weekly plagues. 

It’s hard for Zacarias to think back to her refusal from Goose Creek High School because it upended her plans. 

“When he said no, I said, ‘Really?’” she recalled on an April afternoon, adding she had no idea school enrollment would be so difficult. “I thought this is easy. All I wanted to do was go to high school. When he told me no, I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I was upset. I want to be somebody here.”

A Goose Creek school spokesperson said it welcomes students from across the globe and had no comment on Zacarias’s account of her failed enrollment attempt. 

But the would-be student said the encounter has kept her from pursuing her dreams: A freak accident as a child left Zacarias missing a front tooth, prompting a years-long odyssey to replace it — and a deep interest in dentistry. For now, though, her goals will have to wait. 

“When she (her mother) comes here and she’s ready and she’s safe — she will work and my sister can learn English — that will be the time for me,” she said. “I want to try to help my mom and then try to help me.”

Monica Venegas was also intent on enrolling when she arrived on her own in South Carolina at age 20. She was accepted with ease at R.B. Stall High School in 2022. The campus is less than eight miles from the school that turned away Zacarias.

Monica Venegas, 21, enrolled in a South Carolina high school at the age of 20. She started in the 12th grade, taking four English classes in a single year before graduating in May 2023. She went on to college, taking five courses this fall before halting her studies so she could find work to pay for more classes. (Maxwell Vittorio)

Venegas, who hails from Chile, had to complete four English courses in a single year — this, on top of American history and government — to graduate in May 2023. It was an enormous challenge, she said.

“When I came here, I heard people talking in English and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so difficult’,” she recalled this spring inside her apartment in Ladson, 20 miles north of Charleston. 

But she made a wide circle of friends at school, including several native Spanish speakers whose lives seemed to mirror her own. It was their support that emboldened her to speak English, even when she made mistakes. 

“They helped me to feel good about myself and make me feel more sure about myself,” she said. 

Venegas, an aspiring ESL teacher who said she loves kids and wants to help other newcomers, went on to win a partial scholarship to Charleston Southern University. 

She completed five classes there last year, including in math and American culture. But, like many students around the country overwhelmed by college costs, she was forced to halt her studies in December to earn money for tuition. 

Monica Venegas, 21, with her McDonald’s cap in her South Carolina apartment. (Maxwell Vittorio)

Venegas has worked at McDonald’s for more than a year and a half, pulling in $13 an hour. She hopes to resume classes this fall, though she’s not sure how she’ll pay for them. 

No matter her next steps, she is grateful for her time in high school: There is no way, she said, that she could have gone on to college without it. 

Kharrel Medza, born in Cameroon, played D1 soccer for Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. (Gardner-Webb University)

Kharrel Medza, 25, was 7 years old when he left Cameroon for Belgium — and 17 when he entered the ninth grade in suburban Houston. Medza, fluent in French and German and equivalent to a 12th grader back home, knew nothing of English.  

“I had to start from scratch,” he said. “So the best way was to take a step back and get every foundation needed. At that time I was a little bit frustrated. But it didn’t take me too long to understand what I needed to be successful here in the U.S.”

High school was essential, even if he was far older than his peers, he said. 

“The beginning was the hardest with the language barrier,” he said. “But I was so immersed into the English world, everything was in English: I had no choice but to figure it out. Eventually, after five or six months, I got comfortable with conversation.”

Medza spent three years in high school before graduating in 2019. He then went on to college, playing D1 soccer at Gardner–Webb University in North Carolina before transferring to Houston Christian College in Texas.

Having studied finance, he graduated this spring and hopes to work in business or banking. 

But some students like Medza are kept from such milestones, prevented from entering high school at all, based, in part, on biases specific to older male teens: that they might prey upon their younger female classmates. 

Medza balked at the notion that his focus was anywhere other than academics. His strict parents had clear expectations of what he needed to accomplish — as did he.   

Medza said he “can never be grateful enough” for the opportunity that high school gave him. The idea that he or other students could lose out on that because of such prejudices troubles him.

“Denying education to someone is a crime,” he said.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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