DALTON, Ga. -- Ricardo came to the United States when he was 12 and is studying business administration.
Sandra immigrated here when she was 9 years old and is majoring in psychology.
Beyond their search for higher education, both college students also share a secret: They were brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
Sandra and Ricardo started a group called Youth in Action, coordinated by the Coalition of Latino Leaders, to encourage others in their situation to go to college and get involved with the community.
They asked to be identified only by their first names because of their legal status,
"Our main goal is to encourage (other undocumented youth) to change their way of thinking that 'This is it;' that if you don't go to school, that's it; that if you are not legal, that's all you can do," said Sandra, a 24-year-old Mexico native.
The group held its second meeting recently and plans eventually to host activities and events to get others involved.
"We want to bring different speakers to share their testimony, provide college and scholarship information, to get them to think outside the box," she said.
Ricardo said he wants to make a difference in other teens' lives, including his brother, who is also here illegally and is graduating from high school. "I can see he isn't the way I was," Ricardo said. "I knew I was going to college, (and) he's thinking about it. Not because he doesn't want to go, but because of the situation we're in."
In Georgia, illegal immigrants have to pay out-of-state college tuition rates, which can be three times higher than in-state, and they don't qualify for federal aid or loans.
In July, 2007, the Georgia Board of Regents instructed colleges and universities not to give lower in-state tuition to illegal immigrants under a state law forbidding such tuition breaks.
America Gruner, founder of the Coalition of Latino Leaders, said she often gets calls from teens who are undocumented and don't think they can continue their studies.
The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors -- or DREAM Act -- would legalize the status of those who came to the United States before age 16 and who join the military or enroll in college. It was reintroduced in Congress in March and has been referred to a Senate committee.
Ms. Gruner said Sandra volunteered to form a support group at a meeting organized by the coalition to discuss the DREAM Act.
"There are smaller children in our homework club who they could help and serve as a positive role model, or perhaps help adults learning English or studying for their citizenship test," she said. "They can be productive members of society while they wait for a change."
Area representatives and senators have said they will not support the DREAM Act, which was first introduced in 2001.
"The Dream Act would reward those who have obtained an education in a system in which they have not contributed," U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., wrote in an e-mail. "While I am sympathetic to students who are seeking financial assistance for educational purposes and were brought to this country by their parents without a choice, I am not supportive of programs that reward those behaviors ... when there are thousands of United States citizens who are in need of similar educational funds," he said.
Ricardo will complete his bachelor's in business administration in May, eight years after graduating from high school with honors
He said he understands "that coming here illegally is a crime, but sometimes we don't have a choice."
"I just ask (people) to walk in our shoes sometime, to see things from our point of view and then they can judge about immigration reform, see if they think differently," he said.
WHAT IS THE DREAM ACT?
* A bill that would legalize those up to age 35 who entered the country before the age of 16; graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED; have good moral character (no criminal record); and lived continuously in the United States for at least five years before the passage of the bill.
* Persons would have six years in which to obtain a two-year college degree or complete two years of military service.
* The bill also would allow states to give tuition benefits to undocumented students.