Growing up and attending school in northern Georgia, Valentina Garcia Gonzalez, now 19, exuded confidence in the academic arena.
She was accepted into gifted classes and took more than two dozen advanced-placement (AP) courses at Berkmar High School, a public school in Lilburn, Georgia, right outside of Atlanta.
But that confidence began to waiver when she was applying for colleges and realised Georgia’s best public schools wouldn’t let her in for one reason — her immigration status.
“Am I less of a student? Am I less worthy?” she recalled thinking. “Why don’t I deserve it the way [other students] do?”
Today, she is a freshman at an Ivy League university, but her road to acceptance at one of America’s top schools has not been easy.
Garcia Gonzalez entered the country in 2002, travelling illegally with her parents as a 6-year-old. There are two barriers to a college education in Georgia for undocumented students like her, and the Georgia Board of Regents instituted both of them 2011.
Policy 4.1.6 effectively bans undocumented applicants from applying to Georgia’s top five public universities: the University of Georgia, Georgia State University, Georgia College and State University, Georgia Regents University, and Georgia Institute of Technology.
Policy 4.3.4 bans undocumented applicants from receiving in-state tuition.
Other states in the US have varying rules about tuition and application eligibility for undocumented students, but Georgia sets itself apart from many states by banning illegal immigrants from selective universities and barring them from receiving in-state tuition.
Even though she attended high school in Georgia, Garcia Gonzalez knew nothing about these policies. She says she didn’t try to hide her status and even “came out” as undocumented to her classmates her freshman year at Berkmar.
“I came out because of anti-immigrant sentiment,” she said.
Her school was predominately black and Latino, but she was the ony one to announce her undocumented status.
“I thought it was weird that I was the only one who came out,” she said. “But I came to understand later on that it was the stigma of being undocumented; being seen as less than who you are because you didn’t have a piece of paper.”
Undaunted by appearing “different,” she excelled in school and took seven AP courses — the maximum allowed — her senior year.
She started applying to colleges completely unaware of the bans that would prohibit her from attending schools or receiving financial aid.
She first found out about her ineligibility for financial aid when she attempted to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form for federal financial aid.
She enlisted the help of Freedom U, an organisation that describes itself as a modern-day freedom school, to help her navigate the college application process.
Freedom U offers college-level classes, financial aid assistance, and leadership development classes for undocumented students in Georgia.
She discovered she was ineligible to receive federal financial aid and banned from Georgia’s most selective public universities.
Unable to apply to a top public university in Georgia, she weighed her other options. If she attempted to apply to a private school — Emory University, for example — and was accepted she would have to pay the $45,000 a year it costs for tuition. At the time she applied, Emory didn’t offer need-based financial aid to undocumented students. (That policy changed recently, though.)
She said that for the first time in her entire life, she felt isolated. By cultural standards, Garcia Gonzalez says she is most definitely American. Born in Uruguay, she moved to Georgia at 6 and lived there for the next 14 years.
She has grown up among her friends and classmates, taken the same classes, and gets the same pop culture references. But as all of them were preparing for the next step in their lives, she was stuck, unable to move forward with her college plans.
The policies in place in Georgia effectively constitute modern educational segregation, according to Freedom U.
Garcia Gonzalez started working with Freedom U her senior year in high school, and at their behest, took a gap year between her senior year in high school and freshman year in college to aggressively pursue college applications.
Garcia Gonzalez said that after learning at the 11th-hour that attending a good public university in Georgia would be impossible, she thought community college was her only option. But looking at her academic success, Freedom U pushed her to work to get into a selective school.
With Freedom U she toured college campuses during her gap year, and applied to nine different schools. She was accepted into Dartmouth College and started her freshman year this past fall. She’s considering studying neuroepidemiology, a field that looks at the characteristics and contributors to neurological diseases in human populations.
Perhaps surprisingly, Garcia Gonzalez has experienced hateful comments about her undocumented status in ostensibly liberal New Hampshire.
She says she considered running for a student body position but decided against it after received harassing messages claiming that she would be deported. She also noted, with surprise, that Dartmouth was more conservative than she expected it to be.
But she remains undaunted in her pursuit of success and is even reconsidering a run in student government.
“I can deal with conservatives on campus,” she said.
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