College applications are difficult. The personal essays, tax forms, approaching deadlines can be overwhelming. But Georgia’s undocumented students face an “extra layer” of complication, said retired professor Dr. JoBeth Allen.
“I taught at the University of Georgia for 28 years, and when I found out that the Board of Regents had banned students that don’t have sufficient documentation from attending there, it made me sick to be part of a university system that was again discriminating back to the days of pre-integration at the university.”
It’s not just UGA. The Georgia Board of Regents banned undocumented students from the state’s top five universities. But even those schools who welcome them are not allowed by law to charge in-state tuition; instead students who may have lived here since infancy pay international student rates, sometimes four times the in-state price.
Enter U-Lead Athens. Founded in 2014 by Allen, Betina Kaplan of UGA, and Cedar Shoals High School teacher Matt Hicks, U-Lead provides tutoring, SAT prep, and college application and scholarship assistance to local high school students with Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) designation. DACA status was created by President Obama’s executive order in 2012 after the DREAM Act, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, failed to pass United States Congress.
“They [U-Lead] really helped me a lot,” said Aldo, a DACA status holder and Ceder Shoals graduate who now attends the University of North Georgia.
Not only does U-Lead help pair students with suitable colleges, they also provide modest financial support to students and help them find scholarships open to non-citizens.
One U-Lead alum is attending Agnes Scott College on a $250,000 scholarship, and several others have substantial scholarships, according to Hicks.
Aldo received a $2800 scholarship from U-Lead this year.
“Because of them I was able to return to school this year,” he said. “The previous year I wasn’t able to go because I had no funds, and I had to work to raise funds.”
UGA professor of religion Dr. Robert Foster said he sees a lot of himself in Aldo.
“He’s a fireball. He’s got all this enthusiasm,” Foster said. “He’s one of those people who’s got all this energy and drive, and yet he’s gotta sit down and channel that energy into writing papers and doing well in his courses.”
Foster said he still reads Aldo’s papers and believes in Aldo’s dream of becoming an astronaut.
What sets U-Lead apart is the cooperation between UGA faculty, Cedar Shoals and Clarke Central teachers, and members of UGA’s Undocumented Students Alliance (USA).
Carver Goodhue, a junior at UGA, serves as U-Lead’s coordinator with USA. USA students serve as tutors and mentors, but Goodhue said, “We’re just bodies,” meaning they aren’t special or more qualified than other people. They’re just willing to be friends.
USA volunteer Jenny Alpaugh echoed that idea. “I feel like a big part of U-Lead is building relationships with individual people,” she said. Alpaugh began tutoring Lily, a sophomore at UNG, in the spring.
“She’s the same age as me, and she’s in a trig class which she’s never taken,” Alpaugh said. “I started helping her with her homework that first week. Sometimes we’ll meet up outside of school just cause she’s a really cool person.”
At Thursday night’s meeting Alpaugh talked with student José over homemade shrimp dumplings. José, a junior at Clarke Central, came to the United States from Mexico when he was one.
He hasn’t started college applications yet, but he said, “I’ll definitely get help here when I start.” José said he might major in graphic design because he likes art and film. He wants to start boxing in his spare time too.
“They’re just as American as any of us, and so it’s frustrating that people want to deny them opportunities to give back to the place they’ve grown up in,” said Alpaugh.
Ultimately, all parties involved hope there won’t be a U-Lead in the future.
“I hope to God there’s no need for it,” Allen said.
Foster sees a need for continued support as first-generation English speakers develop college-level writing skills, but hopes that his continued “harassing” of State Representative Margaret Kaiser for in-state tuition reform via Senate Bill 44 will bring some of his work to an end.
“The more immediate ‘why we’re doing this’ could change if the stars were aligned.”
Star-gazer Aldo recommended “The Martian”, starring Matt Damon, for its scientific accuracy. Damon’s character must learn to grow food on Mars when his crew leaves him behind. Working hard to live in a hostile environment isn’t a fiction for Aldo.
“It’s human instinct to try and survive.”