What do you do when you’re told your childhood dream is impossible? That’s the situation Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, founder and CEO of DREAMer’s Roadmap, found herself in during her senior year of high school.
Salamanca’s dream to be the first in her family to graduate from college was shattered when she was told that there were no scholarships available to her because she was an undocumented student. With no money to pay for college on her own, she felt completely hopeless.
However, as anyone who knows Salamanca will tell you, it’s hard to keep her down for long.
With fiery passion and a determination to ensure that others won’t suffer as she did, Salamanca created DREAMer’s Roadmap, a mobile app that helps undocumented students find scholarship opportunities that will enable them to continue their higher education. Her intention is to bring hope to every student who thinks there is no path for them after high school.
Epoch Times sat down with this inspiring young woman, listed by Forbes as one of 2016’s 30 under 30, and asked her to share her story.
Epoch Times: How did you come to the United States?
Salamanca: “I moved from Mexico to Redwood City with my parents and brother when I was 4 years old. Three of my siblings were already living here, and we moved often between them, living wherever there was space. I come from a large family—I’m the youngest of 11—and it was always my dream to be the first one to graduate from college.”
Epoch Times: How old were you when you realized you were undocumented?
Salamanca: “It was always in the back of my mind. My parents would say ‘we didn’t have papers.’ That’s how you say it in Spanish. But I didn’t know the consequences until my senior year in high school.
“Because I was so young when I came here, I always felt like I was an American. I didn’t feel different from my friends at school. I wasn’t exposed to any situation where being undocumented affected my life until I tried to apply for FAFSA and they told me that I couldn’t, that no scholarships were available to me because of my status.”
Epoch Times: What did you do?
Salamanca: “It was a very difficult time for me. I felt so hopeless. Everyone was asking me where I was going to go to college, and I didn’t know what to say. I had always loved school, loved learning. I couldn’t imagine not being able to continue my education, but there was no way I could afford it.
“I lived in Los Angeles at the time and decided that I needed to get away. My sister lived in Redwood City, so I came to the Bay Area to try and figure out what to do next.”
Epoch Times: In 2013, you participated in the DREAMer Hackathon hosted by Mark Zuckerberg and were named a Champion of Change by President Obama’s administration in 2014. How did you come upon these opportunities?
Salamanca: “A few years after coming to the Bay Area, I found out that there were scholarships available for students in my situation. My counselors just hadn’t known about them.
“This inspired me to start my blog, Sarahi.tv, to share resources and information to undocumented students who want to go to college. At the time it was just a hobby, just for fun. But then in 2013 I was one of 20 DREAMers in the nation chosen to go to the DREAMer’s Hackathon hosted by Mark Zuckerberg.
“It was such an amazing experience to be with other undocumented students who were using technology to figure out solutions to the problems in our community. Being in that room was very eye-opening.
“I saw so many others like me, who, despite being undocumented, weren’t giving up. We were fighting and figuring out solutions to help our communities. Then in early 2014 I was invited to the White House to be honored as a ‘Champion of Change’ for the work I was doing on my blog and with Girl Scouts.”
Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca (L) with her 6-month-old baby, Eliana, and her colleague Carla Moran outside her office in Palo Alto, Calif., on May 4. (Grace Li/Epoch Times)
Epoch Times: In 2015, you won first place in the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge, which gave you $100,000 to start your app, DREAMers Roadmap. What can you share about that experience?
Salamanca: “When I first heard about the competition, I doubted myself. I thought, should I do this? It was very intimidating to think of pitching something to do with technology. Not only was it something I’d never done before, but I’d be going against professionals from across the country!
“Finally I decided not to be scared. I’m very faithful and I began to pray, asking God to give me the words I needed. It worked. I went to D.C. full of confidence. I shared my story with the judges and told them I had created a solution so that others didn’t have to suffer as I did. This is something I am so passionate about, and the judges saw that. That was the beginning of DREAMer’s Roadmap.”
Epoch Times: Tell us about DREAMer’s Roadmap.
Salamanca: “DREAMer’s Roadmap is a tool that helps undocumented students find scholarships available to them. It can also be used by educators, counselors, community members, or church people. Anyone who knows or works with undocumented students can use the app to help them find scholarships, to bring them hope.
“I wish it had been around for me. In my senior year, I felt so hopeless, like nobody believed in me. I had worked so hard, but there was no money, no way for me to go to college. It is so important for me to share this app so that my story is not repeated, to let people know that there is hope.
“If a student wants to go to college, has the grades, desire, and potential to go, there is money and an easy way to find it now through this app.”
Epoch Times: How does the DREAMer’s Roadmap work?
Salamanca: “DREAMer’s Roadmap has two functions. You can explore all the scholarships available across the country or create an account by giving your email and answering a few questions. It will then find the specific scholarships available to you, consistently updating you with emails about upcoming or new scholarships. It also sends notifications to your phone, reminding you of scholarship deadlines.”
Epoch Times: What has been the response to DREAMer’s Roadmap?
Salamanca: “It’s been extremely positive. We’ve received so many emails saying thank you for creating this app, that it’s made the process of applying to college so much easier, that it’s given people hope.”
Epoch Times: What difficulties have you overcome in starting your company?
Salamanca: “Being undocumented, being Latina, being a woman, all of these have been a barrier. But these things have made me who I am, so I’ve used them as strengths instead of weaknesses.
“If I hadn’t been undocumented, I wouldn’t be so passionate about this issue. I wouldn’t have tried to figure out a solution. My story has made me stronger. I also keep learning. When someone tells me no, I don’t get sad or mad. I thank them, but also ask them why. I want to learn from it.
“My advice to everyone is to never give up. Believe in yourself and don’t stop dreaming.”
Epoch Times: You are so young and have achieved so much. How do you define success?
Salamanca: “For me, success is personal happiness. If you’re driven, passionate, and happy to wake up every day, that’s success, regardless of what degrees you have.
“Take somebody who has a Ph.D. but is miserable at their job. To me that’s not success. Society has a tendency to put us in a box, to make us believe that in order to be successful we have to get a degree, but that’s not necessarily true.
“Because of the success I’ve achieved, I probably don’t need to continue with college. But I still have the dream of being the first in my family to get a college degree, so I keep working towards that, going to school in the summer or evenings, whenever I can make time. I’m not done yet, but I do feel successful because of what I’ve accomplished.”
Epoch Times: You radiate passion and energy—just being in the same room with you is inspiring. It’s obvious you are doing work you love. From your humble beginnings, how do you feel you got to this place of success?
Salamanca: “Being undocumented, my life story has made me who I am. That and my mom. When I was little, she would make me speak at church. At a very young age, she would put me in front of the church to talk or pray. I would be so nervous! I’d try to tell her I couldn’t do it, but she’d always make me. Those were my first experiences with public speaking.
“She taught me to believe in myself, to not be afraid. Most of my values come from her. She taught me to love everybody, to help everybody, to serve everybody. She gave me so much. I owe her everything.
“When we came here, we had nothing. No money, no English, nothing; but look where I am now. I’m working at my dream job while helping others. Everything is possible here. People need to know that. Everything is possible if you just don’t give up.”