American schools tell children that if they work hard, they can achieve all of their aspirations, yet in the case of undocumented students who follow the rules, they are eventually slapped by the realization that the American Dream does not apply to them.
Sam, a high school student in Elkhart, Ind., came to the U.S. from Mexico with his parents as a young child, but after overstaying their visas, they became undocumented immigrants. Having spent almost all of his life in this country, he embraced the American way of life.
After earning top grades in school and becoming a standout saxophone player, Sam planned to go to college to study music, but during the application process he soon learned that it would be much harder due to his status.
In May 2009, award-winning producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister were interviewing students at Sam’s high school, in pursuit of a story about high rates of unemployment in the area. The duo had a hard time finding the right character for the piece, until they met Sam and soon recognized the story was going in a whole new direction.
Months of recording and editing ultimately led to a 45-minute audio story titled “American Dreamer: Sam’s Story,” about the high school senior’s acceptance into Indiana University South Bend, and his struggles to enroll and stay at the institution. In December 2009, NPR broadcast an excerpt of the documentary.
“It’s a paradox that kids like Sam find themselves in,” Collison says. “They are educated in the American school system and then all of a sudden a wall goes up and their opportunities are limited. Kids are prevented from pursuing a viable future in a country that invested in these kids and can gain from what they have to offer.”
Starting with his applications, Sam’s journey to college was a rocky one. Without documentation, he was unable to gain admission to better ranked colleges and could not qualify for any financial aid. To attend IUSB, he had to raise the in-state tuition cost himself – close to 8,000 – with a little help from his parents.
The fact that the story was produced in a radio format not only made it powerful, but made it possible, according to the Collison and Meister of Long Haul Productions. Because radio provided a higher level of anonymity, such as not showing Sam’s face, his parents agreed to let their son be interviewed.
“They [Sam’s parents] wanted him to be able to tell his story to help other folks,” Collison says. “Since we went and talked to his parents personally, it was clear that we cared about Sam and that we were respectful of them.”
The biggest challenge of the entire project had nothing to do with the actual production, but rather the harsh reactions of some audience members when the story was broadcast.
“We felt really bad for Sam and his parents for the hateful comments and that some people out there were so callous and had absolutely no empathy,” Collison says. Meister adds, “In the future I would prepare the participants for the hate mail and negative comments that can come in after broadcast.”
While Sam did raise enough money to put himself through college for about two years – some from donations he acquired during speaking engagements – he eventually had to drop out when Indiana changed their laws and required students without legal status to pay out-of-state tuition.
In the time since the project wrapped, Sam married an American citizen and is on his way to citizenship, and while he works toward that, he is the proud holder of a green card.
Thinking back on the story, the duo strongly believe that the key to any good piece of journalism is to find the right character and get to know them.
“We always try to find the Sam,” Collison says. “Don’t settle for the first character that you meet. If you have the luxury of time, do research and audition people. Give them time and respect to tell their story.”
Listen to An American Dreamer here.