A little bit of the American Dream came true for Rocio Monreal this year.

Rocio Monreal (right) has been admitted to the University of Notre Dame. (Submitted photo)

The native of Zacatasas, Mexico, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 5, was all set to graduate from St. Anthony High School in June. A bright and eager learner, she had maintained a 3.8 GPA, served as president of the school’s National Honor Society and was even one of her class’ three valedictorians. To top it all off, she was admitted to her dream school, Notre Dame, in March.

But like so many American students, she wasn’t sure how she was going to foot the bill for higher education. As a non-citizen, she is ineligible for federal aid, and her parents are already working hard to help her older sister complete nursing school.

So it was a sweet relief in April when she received word that Notre Dame had granted her a full-ride, need-based scholarship to attend the prestigious university.

“I cried,” she said.

The first thing she did was send a screenshot of the email to James Schultz, her theology teacher at SAHS who was responsible for introducing her to Notre Dame.

It was Schultz, an alum of the Notre Dame graduate program, who began the Notre Dame mentorship program at SAHS, which has a majority Hispanic student population. The program, in its fourth year, partners with the Notre Dame Institute for Latino Studies to connect SAHS students with Hispanic college students at Notre Dame.

The goal is not necessarily to inspire the SAHS student to apply for Notre Dame, said Schultz. It’s more of a resource for them to gain insight about university life, the college application process, and cultural and social obstacles that might impact Hispanic students.

“The highlight of the whole program is that they spend three nights in South Bend with their mentor, staying in the dorm, going to classes and experiencing college life,” said Schultz.

Monreal visited her mentor, a political science student named Jessica, in South Bend in October. She said the campus felt like home to her.

“I think it was just the atmosphere,” she said. “I felt comfortable just walking around the campus. It was also just seeing how comfortable every student was being involved.”

She applied to the school in December.

But the admission didn’t mean anything without financial aid. Tuition and fees for the 2017-18 school year amount to more than $67,000 at Notre Dame — an impossible figure for most families, the Monreals included.

As a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, Monreal was able to obtain a social security number, get a driver’s license and job as a cashier, and complete a Student Aid Report that assessed her family’s ability to pay for college.

Notre Dame has admitted undocumented immigrants since 2013, and at that time, declared its intention to “meet the full demonstrated financial need for all admitted students.”

Life in America hasn’t always been easy for Monreal, who lives on the South Side and attends St. Anthony Parish. She enrolled at St. Anthony School just after arriving in Milwaukee, but wasn’t able to communicate fluently in English for several years.

“Looking back on it now, it was just difficult to not be able to say the smallest things,” she said. “In K5, I made a friend and she spoke Spanish; we got really close and whenever I was struggling to say something, she would translate it for me.”

Her parents are excited for her to have this opportunity, she said — even if they are nervous about her going so far from home.

“The way that Hispanic families work is they want to keep you close, and I’m the only one in my family that tries to actually leave and get out of the house,” she said with a laugh. “I know for myself, I’ll be open to a lot more different things and I’ll have a lot more opportunities than I would if I stayed at a smaller school here in Milwaukee.”

Monreal will likely join the SAHS/Notre Dame mentorship program next year, said Schultz.

She’s certain that Notre Dame is the start of a brighter future for her and her family.