Friday, June 20, 2008

Blocked From The American Dream


By Jamilla Penarete

I am my mother’s American dream. I was born in Fairfax Inova Hospital. I grew up in Fairfax County Public Schools, recited the pledge of allegiance well over 1,000 times, made honor roll in high school, received my driver’s license at 16, registered to vote at 18, and eagerly awaited the moment when I could walk across constitution hall to receive my diploma, throw my cap into the air and begin a highly anticipated chapter in one’s life: College. That was easier said than done.

My going to college was never a question. It was expected and in mine and my mother’s minds a certainty. Education could not have been stressed enough in my home; she was the drive that helped me succeed in high school and the reason that I was determined to strive for nothing but success in college. I carried with me her struggles of a difficult life in Colombia where many a times she walked miles with no shoes to attend a small school in a far off town. She knew education was the key to a success that would take me to heights that she never had the opportunity of reaching.

As a senior in high school I had applied to various colleges. Although the idea of going far off on my own was appealing, I was in no financial position to attend an expensive out-of-state school, so I looked to more affordable state schools. In the spring of 2006 I was euphoric after finding out I was accepted to George Mason University. Although I wanted to live on campus and experience the full-range of college life, because I would be paying for school on my own, I knew it was a wiser financial decision to live at home and try to get involved in extracurricular activities instead.

After registering for classes I glanced at the final cost of tuition and was confused to see that I was being charged over $9,000 which was three times as much as what I expected. Stunned, I figured it was a mistake. It made no sense that for five classes I was being charged over $9,000 to commute to a school less than 9 miles away in a state that I had been had been born and raised in. So I went to the Registrar’s Office at school and they told me to reapply for instate and to my disbelief I received out-of-state rates again. Afterwards, I spoke to an assistant at the Registrar’s Office and to my dismay began to realize just how big of an unexpected role my parents’ legal status would play in my chances for an education. I was told that because I had applied to school as a dependent student of an illegal immigrant I could not receive instate rates; the fact I, and my parents, paid taxes was apparently irrelevant.

I received sympathy from those at the Domicile and Registrar’s Office but no help. I was told that they were not allowed to advise me in what steps I should take to better my situation. Reapplying as an independent student was the best advice they could give me. I appealed as an independent student with little if any hope. Nothing worked out and my options, I felt, had been exhausted.

Because of my parents' situation I didn’t feel comfortable about continuing to push my case. I wasn’t sure what would happen to them if I continued to make more noise. So feeling that I had no choice, I paid the full out-of-state tuition in the hopes that as time went by other options would open up for me.

It was all ridiculous but I felt there was nothing I could do. I slashed my plans for after school activities and substituted it with work. With tuition and other expenses I ended up paying nearly $20,000 for my one year of school. It was too much and I couldn’t go back the next year. So instead I planned on working for the year to save up for school and perhaps try to receive instate by proving myself an independent student. The astonishment and disbelief had been replaced with frustration and reality had settled in with the sad truth that, I and perhaps other American students, were being forced to attend school at unfair rates simply because of our parents legal status.
Penarete is a 19-year-old US-born American citizen who lives in Northern Virginia. She was recently informed by George Mason that she is being reclassified as an in-state student, and plans on attending this fall.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Virginia Forum. 6/08