Forbes 30 Under 30, Latina Immigrant Created App to Help Kids Pay for College

By Valene Mezmin

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It’s a question that many undocumented immigrant students in high school have to face: how do I pay for college? Though they may have spent a majority of their lives in the United States, a place they have come to call home, undocumented students who want to go to college face the challenge of constantly being denied financial aid.

DREAMer’s Roadmap, a nonprofit mobile app, helps undocumented students from across the country who may not qualify for the same scholarships that are available to their peers find scholarships that will allow them to go to college, despite their status.

The story of DREAMer’s Roadmap began with the tumultuous life journey of Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, the founder and CEO of the app.

Sarahi was born in Mexico, the youngest of 11 children, and moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 4 years-old. She describes the first few years as being unstable since her family would constantly move in with different relatives which meant that she never got to stay in one school for long.

From a young age, Sarahi decided to place a high value on her education since she saw it as the outlet that could provide her and her family with the stability that she desired. “I was determined to be a really good student so that I could go to college and get a career for myself so that I could have stability for me and my mom,” says Sarahi.

While in high school, Sarahi worked hard to get the best grades possible in her classes and became actively involved in her school and her community. She served as the Vice President of student body, was editor of the yearbook, played the lead in the school’s theater performance, was a Sunday school teacher for her church, and frequently volunteered at shelters.

“I felt like I had it all,” says Sarahi. “For me it was a no brainer that I would get accepted to UCLA,” her dream school near her home in North Hollywood, Los Angeles.

Because of her hard work and dedication, Sarahi was the first from her family to graduate from high school and was determined to move forward with her education.

“I wasn’t worried,” she remembers. “I just had to apply for financial aid for the application and I was going to be in.”

But that didn’t happen.

Because of her undocumented status, she was unable to apply for FAFSA and other scholarships, a reality that she says was hard to comprehend at the time.

“Everything went downhill really fast,” recalls Sarahi. “I fell into depression because I knew college was not attainable anymore.”

Additionally, she found herself alone since her dad went back to Mexico due to the culture shock of being in America and her mother left when she was 16 and was unable to return to the country. “It’s been really hard not to have my mom here because she’s been my rock for everything.”

Since she couldn’t go to college, Sarahi moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with her sister and found work as a nanny while also washing and ironing people’s clothes.

“It was really hard because I saw so much more for me and for my future,” she says. “What hurt me the most was this place that I called home didn’t let me reach my full potential to give back to the country that I love.”

Sarahi found her silver lining in a woman she knew from church who spoke about her son who helped undocumented students in the Bay Area go to college. She remembers thinking “how does this lady from church know more about what’s out there for students like me and not my educators?”

With so many other undocumented students who are constantly held back from reaching their full potential and making a difference in the world, Sarahi knew that she had to work to get more information out there to help these students.

Because of the woman’s help, Sarahi attended Foothill College in 2008. Although she dropped out in 2009 to save money after her father was diagnosed with cancer, she continued her education at Cañada College in 2013.

In order to prevent her story from repeating itself through other immigrants, she decided to start a blog where she would post scholarship opportunities for undocumented students. She would also network with tech companies and through this learned that technology wasn’t just a form of communication or navigation but could be used as an avenue for social impact that could help solve problems in the community.

Because of her work, the White House honored Sarahi as a Champion of Change in 2014. That same year, she entered the Voto Latino Innovator’s Challenge where she won first place. She used the $100,000 that she won to start the DREAMer’s Roadmap app, dedicated to help undocumented students cross over from high school to college more smoothly.    

In its first seven months, DREAMer’s Roadmap got over 11,000 downloads, more than Sarahi expected.

“It’s a testament not only to myself but to the country that this was something we needed,” says Sarahi. “This was a problem that wasn’t being addressed and now that we’re addressing it people are responding.”

Sarahi’s work has been recognized all over the world, from Israel to China, Venezuela, and her home country Mexico. Recently, she was given the honor of being one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 and was named one of 100 leaders featured in Real Leaders magazine.

Moving forward, Sarahi hopes to raise more money to sustain and upgrade the app while she continues to further her education.

She encourages other young aspiring female entrepreneurs to stay strong and wade through rejection as they work towards fulfilling their dreams.  

“If this is something you want to do, you need to believe in yourself 100 percent and surround yourself with people who believe in you and your ideas,” she says. “None of us get anywhere by ourselves, we need a team. I surrounded myself with people who believed in me and loved me and don’t think I’m less of a person because I’m a woman of color in the tech world.”

Samantha Sheppe