From DREAMer to Entrepreneur
Story By: Lakendra Lewis
Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca has always been a dreamer -- in more ways than one.
From the time she came to the United States at the age of four with her parents as an undocumented immigrant, Salamanca had aspirations to go to college, get an education and make something of herself. And she has.
At 28, Salamanca is the first in her family to not only graduate from high school and college in the U.S., but in 2016 she was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 for her work in education and has been recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change in innovative community leadership. And that’s only the beginning of a long list of accolades Salamanca, the founder and CEO of DREAMer’s Roadmap, has garnered on her pursuit of the American Dream.
In fact, one look at her resume and there is arguably no doubt Salamanca is fast on her way to becoming a potent voice in the Latino community. But on the path to achieving her goals, Salamanca endured obstacles that, due to her undocumented status, nearly shattered her dreams of going to college.
The youngest of 11 children in her family, Salamanca’s school life had been that of a typical American kid, until her senior year when she began applying for college and was denied financial aid because she did not have a social security number.
“That was the first time in my life where I was being questioned about who I was and what I was because of my status,” Salamanca said. “In the back of my mind I always knew I was an immigrant, but I didn’t really realize what it meant to be an undocumented immigrant or an undocumented student trying to pursue a higher education.”
That daunting experience lead Salamanca to create DREAMer’s Roadmap, an innovative nonprofit mobile app that helps other Dreamers--an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors--find scholarships to go to college.
The app was launched in April 2016 and has so far aided 16,500 students in finding scholarships. But the road leading to the app’s creation has been filled with trials as well as triumphs.
When Salamanca graduated high school in 2008, it looked as if her collegiate dreams were over. Then, through a church friend whose son worked as a counselor at a nearby community college, Salamanca learned she could attend college after all, and qualified for in-state tuition for undocumented students. Salamanca worked throughout the summer to pay for her first semester, either taking the bus to school or getting rides from family.
Around this time her father was diagnosed with cancer. Salamanca was also separated from her mother who, when Salamanca was 16, went back to Mexico to attain legal immigration status but was denied and could not return to the States.
It would be nearly 10 years before Salamanca, by then a legal U.S. citizen who was married with a young daughter of her own, saw her mother again during a return visit to Mexico.
These factors weighed heavily on Salamanca and she struggled to get through her classes. Unable to focus, she dropped out of school and took a job as a nanny for different families in order to send money to her parents in Mexico. When Salamanca’s father died in 2011, her undocumented status prevented her from traveling to Mexico for the funeral. Salamanca was on the verge of giving up. She wanted to go back to Mexico, but her mother encouraged her to stay in America and complete her education.
“My mom was right. I had so much more waiting for me here,” Salamanca said. In 2012, the Obama administration implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and by the following year Salamanca had a work permit and had applied for a social security number and driver’s license.
“That year shifted everything,” she said. “I went back...with the mentality that...I no longer have the barriers I had when I graduated high school. My world opened up.”
Salamanca left her job as a nanny and went back to school at Cañada College, where she eventually graduated. While there she got a part-time job as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program instructor with the Girl Scouts, and created a blog where she posted scholarship information and student networking events.
Salamanca also applied for a position with a hackathon that invited Dreamers to help solve problems in their communities. After sharing her story and her blog during the interview process, Salamanca was among 20 Dreamers in the country chosen to be a group team leader for the hackathon, which advocated for immigration reform.
In 2015 she entered and won a $100,000 grant in the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge, a nonprofit competition that empowers Millennials to improve the lives of and expand opportunities for Latinos in the U.S. through tech-based projects.
Spurred by the lack of knowledge her high school teachers and counselors possessed regarding scholarships for undocumented students, Salamanca used her winnings to create the DREAMer’s Roadmap.
Raising additional funds to keep the app going has been an uphill battle because while foundations love the idea of the app, none are willing to fund it either because it is an app or because it’s such a new concept, Salamanca said. She is currently seeking to create a for-profit branch of her nonprofit in order to generate revenue.
“We’re down to $3,000 of the $100,000 I won two years ago, which should have lasted us only one year,” Salamanca said. “But because I’ve been so cautious about what I’ve spent our money on, we’ve been able to survive this long.”
Salamanca also has launched a campaign on YouCaring, an online fundraising website, to raise money for the app. The targeted goal is $500,000, which will be used to hire a team and launch an updated version of the app. The campaign has so far collected $8,110 of that goal, $7,500 of which was donated by actress Rosario Dawson, who has become a friend and staunch supporter.
“I have to stay hopeful that God has a purpose for me, and there’s a reason for me to go through everything I’ve gone through and am going through,” Salamanca said. “I never did this with the intention of being awarded or recognized. I did it with the intention of changing people’s lives and giving them a better future and the college experience that I never had.”