Like a lot of other high school seniors across the country, Mercy Hercules wants to work part-time and plan for her college education.
But she doesn’t have a social security number, which means she can’t apply for a job or get the same in-state rate for higher education that many of her peers will enjoy.
"I was born in El Salvador," Mercy said and added that her parents moved her to the United States when she was a little girl.
Although she lives in Maryland, she’s considered a nonresident and would have to pay roughly $9,000 more per year—than if she qualified for in-state tuition—to attend a local college, she said.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “I feel like I’m left out.”
Mercy, an Annapolis High School senior, hopes to break the barriers that stand between her and her plans for the future. Next month, she’ll approach lawmakers in the state’s capital to support Senate Bill 167, known as the Maryland Dream Act, that would offer in-state college tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria.
“I’ll be talking to senators and giving testimony,” she said and added that she wants to help other Latino students find their way to college and careers.
On Saturday, Mercy was at South River High School for a Hispanic Youth Mini-Symposium.
The event, a first of its kind for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, included about 120 high school students.
Ellen Olsen, ESOL family and community outreach specialist for the county’s schools, said she was pleased at the turnout.
A Hispanic Youth Leadership Council made up of students from across the county helped organize the event, she said.
Annapolis High School junior Cindy Herrera is a member of the council.
"You're the one that makes a difference, not others," she said of encouraging other students to pursue success in life.
The symposium, which included information booths hosted by the University of Maryland and Anne Arundel Community College representatives, featured workshops designed to guide Hispanic students who want to pursue higher education and leadership roles.
Alba Morales, outreach family community bilingual facilitator for Anne Arundel schools, said the Hispanic population in the county has grown in the last five years, especially in areas such as Glen Burnie and Annapolis.
Difficulties that local Hispanic students face include language, cultural and financial barriers, Morales said. Some of the students quit high school because of such challenges, she said.
Los Angeles-based empowerment comedian “Ernie G” was the keynote speaker at the event.
He joked about his full name—Ernesto Tomas Gritzewsky—and described himself as being a Mexican, Puerto Rican, Russian, French, Catholic and Jewish American.
“I am this country,” he said and smiled.
Gritzewsky, national spokesman for the Hispanic College Fund, said he is the first person in his family to go to college.
He said most of the students at the symposium are "as American as apple pie."
Gritzewsky told the students to be proud of their heritage and work to attain their goals.
“Embrace every piece of who you are,” he said. “In my world, you’re a dream student.”