DACA recipient received scholarship, UCF asked for money back due to status

Department of Education says universities are responsible for ensuring eligibility

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ORLANDO, Fla. – As a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Melani Candia did not qualify for federal aid when she was at the University of Central Florida.

She said she had to pull two or three jobs a semester to help pay for all expenses as she pursued her bachelor’s degree.

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Candia, who was born in Bolivia and is now a teacher, applied for UCF’s Project SPEECH when she was pursuing her master’s degree in exceptional student care in 2020. It is a federally funded program that provides funding for courses that lead to certain master’s degrees.

Project SPEECH accepted Candia, but near the end of her first semester, UCF demanded thousands of dollars back.

“Someone somewhere in a position of authority gave me the wrong information, and when they rescinded my funding, it didn’t leave me with a balance of zero,” Candia said. “All the classes I had previously taken… left me with about $13,000 in debt, completely tanked my credit.”

When interviewing for the project, Candia received two emails from university leaders saying her status would not affect her eligibility.

“Your DACA status would not preclude you from participating in the program,” one email said in March 2020 before Candia’s first semester in the summer.

Near the end of the summer, UCF backtracked. Candia said she tried working with UCF to solve the issue but to no avail. She withdrew in spring 2021.

“Coming from the background that I come from, coming from the traumatic experience that it is trying to fund education,” Candia said. “The days where I was going through this with Project SPEECH and where I was trying to figure out how to just fund my education... it was just a huge weight.”

The U.S. Department of Education sent News 6 an email, saying an institution is responsible for ensuring the eligibility of students who are being offered scholarships funded through this program. The email also said an institution must return the federal funding to the department.

News 6 requested to speak with the UCF leaders involved in Candia’s situation to understand how this mistake happens and what steps are taken to resolve it.

But UCF spokesman Mark Schlueb said in an email that federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations “prevent us from disclosing information about any student’s particular situation.”

News 6 also obtained emails sent to Candia by Dean Pamela Carroll from the College of Graduate Studies. In one email, she told Candia the situation was “out of our hands.”

However, the DOE said an institution should work with the student to take reasonable steps to resolve the issue when a student is determined ineligible after signing a federal pre-scholarship agreement.

“Determining ‘reasonable steps’ is a matter that’s left up to the university and the student since each situation is unique,” the DOE said.

Schlueb said an adviser would encourage a student to drop a course, which would leave them owing nothing to UCF if a situation like this happens. Carroll also emailed Candia, saying she should delay taking classes until her finances improve.

Candia said the university could have helped her more to solve the issue and that it’s a shame UCF continues to be vague. She said she still does not understand why she had to repay UCF in full when leaders gave her the wrong information.

“Their handling of it was insensitive,” Candia said. “I do think that people in a position of authority should definitely be responsible and be accountable for any mistakes they may have made.”

Florida has the fifth most DACA recipients with about 23,600 recipients, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reports.

USCIS spokesperson Sharon Scheidhauer said that USCIS does not have a number for how many DACA recipients have pursued or finished college.

Candia said she is grateful for her education at UCF, but she is considering transferring to another university instead. She said she is sure she is not the only student this has happened to.

“All these little obstacles push you to remember ‘OK, I’m here and I’m not going anywhere,’” Candia said. “This is not just my home but it’s my community.”

Candia said despite any turmoil she has endured, she continues to celebrate her triumphs — big or small.

“It hurts and it’s something to definitely take care of so it doesn’t overwhelm,” Candia said. “But it does remind you I have to keep going.”

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Ashley joined ClickOrlando.com in June 2022.