When I first spoke with a mentor at Texas Tech University’s Honors College in 2011, I was a Fort Worth high school senior ranked at the top of my class. But because I was an undocumented immigrant, I didn’t know if I’d be able to go to college. He told me not to worry; the Honors College would consider my application regardless. I felt even greater relief when I learned I’d be able to afford school. Texas public colleges and universities abide by tuition-equity laws, which meant that I was eligible to pay the same in-state tuition rate as the rest of my classmates.
A huge door opened for me that year, and once I walked through it everything changed. Today I’m a Ph.D. candidate studying mathematical biology at Texas Tech. I’m also a teacher, an Entrepreneurship Fellow at the nonprofit Immigrants Rising, and a start-up founder. None of this would have happened if I wasn’t eligible for in-state tuition in Texas, where I’ve lived since I was 11 years old, after my family fled violence in our native Pakistan. Unfortunately, Texas State Rep. Kyle Biedermann is trying to shut that door for other young immigrants.
In November, Rep. Biedermann introduced a bill that would rescind the Texas Dream Act, the 2001 law signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry that enables Texans without legal status to pay in-state tuition fees at a state colleges and universities. Biedermann’s bill is one of many attempts in recent years to overturn the law. If passed, it could triple the cost of college for undocumented students, placing a huge barrier between young Texan immigrants and their educational and career goals.
The bill would not only jeopardize the futures of many bright, hard-working young people, it would also be terrible for the Texas economy. A 2018 report by the Texas Legislature’s Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness notes that Texas businesses are struggling to find qualified workers to fill key positions, and the situation is growing worse. By 2020, 62 percent of Texas jobs will require post-secondary education, but currently only 35.6 percent of Texans age 25 and older have an associate’s degree or higher.
The skills gap is particularly acute in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy reports that in Texas there are 13 STEM open jobs for every unemployed STEM worker. NAE also finds that the STEM fields are very popular with college-educated young immigrants; among this cohort’s top occupations: accounting, nursing, software development, computer science and systems analysis.
For my part, studying mathematical biology at an advanced level has enabled me to conduct research that will build upon our existing knowledge of how to treat and cure diseases. I’ve also developed entrepreneurship skills through my work as a student leader in the entrepreneurship and innovation landscape at Texas Tech University. In 2015, a team of us created a business plan and entered it in the Tibetan Innovation Challenge business plan competition hosted by the University of Rochester. Our team was awarded first place by a panel of judges and His Holiness the Dalia Lama. We subsequently launched that business, Pata, a platform that enables Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India to sell their handicraft items and hand-woven rugs here in the West. Right now, I’m running the operations from my Lubbock home as we work to expand.
I’m a proud Texan and wherever I go, whether across the country or the world, I feel lucky to live in the best state in the country. I’ll always be grateful to the state of Texas for enabling me to develop my skills, and I’m happy for the chance to repay that investment. Other young Texans only want this same chance. If the legislature takes it away, it will be a grave loss for these students, and for the state.
Saba Nafees is a Ph.D. candidate in mathematical biology at Texas Tech University.