Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
Cedar Shoals High School teacher Matt Hicks, center, helps students fill out a financial aid application during a workshop at Oconee Street United Methodist Church.
A group of Clarke Central High School parents have started a fundraising campaign to send undocumented local students to college because they’re barred from attending the University of Georgia and must pay out-of-state tuition at less competitive state schools.
As a gift to the Class of 2015, parents have started a GoFundMe campaign for U-Lead Athens, a group for undocumented students and their mentors, through the nonprofit Athens Economic Justice Coalition. “These kids have every bit the chance of going to college except for this one little problem we have—the law,” says Bertis Downs, an education activist and father of a Clarke Central student. “And so these kids still go to college, but where they end up going are private schools that will give them a scholarship.”
The University System Board of Regents' policy 4.1.6 bans students who are not lawfully in the United States from enrolling in Georgia’s top public universities, and requires them to pay nearly triple the tuition of in-state students at colleges with open enrollment, even though many have lived in Georgia almost their entire lives, and some are part of a federal program that defers deportation for students. Students have protested the policy at UGA President Jere Morehead’s office and Board of Regents meetings and, most recently, occupied a classroom for Freedom University lectures, leading to several arrests.
Undocumented students from the Athens area are going to top-tier universities, including Syracuse and Furman, with help from mentors, professors and teachers who are helping them to navigate the application and financial-aid process, which is complicated by their immigration status, Downs says.
“It's complicated stuff for kids from anywhere, but especially when you have this burden of this law making it a real barrier, and these teachers have decided they're going to help these kids, because the kids need it,” he says.
“We [parents of U.S. citizens] don't have anywhere near the barriers for our kids that these kids face,” Downs says. “They're sitting right next to them in class, they’re just as smart as they are, they’ve done just as well on the test or better, and they can't go. So we thought, as a symbolic thing, why don't we put some money into a fund and then let the U-Lead teachers figure out which kids are close to being able to go to college, but they still have the significant hurdle financially?”
U-Lead is affiliated with Freedom University, an organization that offers college-level classes to undocumented students affected by policy 4.1.6. Matt Hicks, a Cedar Shoals High School English teacher, saw a need for a program to help undocumented students get into college when one student found out she was undocumented.
“We had to find out all this stuff together, so I asked her to help me teach a class as a student, and we started an enrichment course” during a period reserved for electives and extracurricular activities, Hicks says. “It wasn't just undocumented kids. It was kids who faced all these different barriers, all these questions. I didn't have answers.” He started calling admissions departments and college boards on behalf of his students.
When Freedom U recently moved from Athens to Atlanta—around the same time a scheduling change at Cedar Shoals ended the enrichment class—Hicks realized he couldn’t do it by himself. He started working with Freedom U’s JoBeth Allen and Bettina Kaplan to launch U-Lead, which is headquartered at Oconee Street United Methodist Church.
“I’m just really, really happy, but I also get really worried, because I get more involved with more people, there are more success stories, but there are also more disappointments,” he says. Some undocumented students are forced to drop out, because they can’t afford to take even a couple of classes at a time, or they have to support their families, Hicks says, but they could be helped by the scholarship fundraiser.
"To see that done is very heartening,” Hicks says. “To feel not alone in this is what the kids need more than anything else, but as educators we feel very alone at times, so that was just amazing to know that that parent group got together.
The effort had raised $11,023 out of a $30,000 goal at press time.
“And I know that a few of these kids have started clicking on that, sort of slyly.” Hicks says. “Seeing how it's growing, they're excited a little bit, because they know that, at this point in time, there are between eight and nine seniors that will benefit from it. “Now is the time where some of them are getting excited, and others are getting tired and asking, ‘Did I dream too big?’
“So I think that the money is tangible hope, but to see every time there is a donation, or they hear about another fundraiser, they also know that means there are people who understand and care, and I think that there's nothing more valuable than that in the journey.”