‘Week of Dreams’ Highlights AB 540 Students’ Struggles

Jacky Acosta is soft-spoken when you first meet her, but her creativity and innovation make a powerful statement. Her short brown hair is decorated with a bright yellow flower that she crafted from recycled plastic bags. She pulls out multi-colored strands of plastic from her purse that she has just started braiding together to make a bracelet.

“Sometimes you can still see the warning labels,” Acosta said, smiling as she points out the black ink on a blue plastic strands.

Acosta is a third-year psychology and social behavior major and a recent transfer to UC Irvine from Santa Ana College. After learning about the destructive effect plastic bags have on the environment, she began searching for a new way to recycle them.

“The first thing my mom and I made was a doormat,” Acosta said. She was surprised by the durability of the mat, which she made by knitting plastic bags together. Soon, she began making other products.

What began as an environmental project last year quickly grew into a business: “Plast*eco: crafty recycling” has over 200 fans on Facebook. Acosta makes everything from accessories and wallets to purses and tote bags.

“I can’t apply for financial aid,” Acosta said, an AB 540 student. The term “AB 540” stands for Assembly Bill 540, which was passed in 2001 to allow undocumented and out-of-state students (who meet certain requirements) to pay in-state tuition at all California public colleges and universities.

However, the bill does not allow those students to apply for financial aid. With aid unavailable and scholarships sparse, AB 540 students must find alternative ways to keep up with the rising fees.

“But this way,” Acosta said, gesturing to her large yellow and white Plast*eco tote bag, “I can at least pay for textbooks.”

Acosta is part of DREAMS (Dedication for the Realization of an Education and Always Motivated for Success) at UCI, a new organization whose goal is to foster a safe community for AB 540 students. DREAMS at UCI is currently focused on securing institutional aid for AB 540 students.

The group also hopes to create a scholarship fund with help from professors and staff members who have shown their support since the beginning of the year.

Among the group’s activities for awareness is DREAMS Week from Feb. 22 to the 27. Events include an open mic for students and community members to share their stories and a screening of “Papeles,” a documentary about undocumented youths in America and the stigma that being an AB 540 student brings.

The film’s Web site, papersthemovie.com, reveals that there are approximately two million undocumented children born outside the U.S. but raised within the country. Among those children, there are 65,000 undocumented students who graduate every year from high school. The reasons for their citizenship status vary, from coming to the U.S. with parents who are searching for work to children who have fled war-torn countries with their families.

Acosta herself wants to research more about how AB 540 students are affected by the political and educational systems. It is one of the reasons she chose to attend UCI.

“But it’s hard to reach out to people,” Acosta admitted. “People have a lot of misconceptions about AB 540 and the DREAM Act.”

Under the proposed 2009 DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, undocumented students have the opportunity to become permanent residents.

“This is not ‘amnesty for all students’ though,” Acosta said. The bill includes a list of requirements needed before acquiring residency. This includes good moral standing and a high school diploma. Students also need to have been in the country for five years prior to the bill’s approval.

If the conditions are met, undocumented students would first be allowed to obtain temporary residency for a period of six years where they could either serve in the military or apply for financial aid and work towards earning a degree in higher education.

Acosta hopes DREAMS Week will help dispel the negative stereotypes that surround undocumented students. She plans on selling her Plast*eco crafts before Wednesday’s screening of “Papeles” Acosta will continue to make and sell items to help the environment and raise awareness for the plight of AB 540 students.

“I want people to see that this isn’t an immigration issue,” Acosta said firmly. “It’s an education issue.”

For pictures and information about Plast*eco: crafty recycling, visit www.flickr.com/people/plast_eco.

For more about DREAMS at UCI and DREAMS Week, search “DREAMS at UCI” on Facebook.