Every Sunday, in an unmarked building in Athens, Georgia, a group of students quietly gather in secret. They are aspiring professors, diplomats and engineers who have been banned from Georgia’s top five public universities.
But here, in this donated space, it is safe to study.
This place is called Freedom University. It has one classroom and four professors, scholars who’ve taught at some of America’s top colleges and universities, like Amherst, Harvard, Emory and Yale. The professors teach there on their days off and without pay.
But there’s one major problem — their students are undocumented!
One student, Keish grew up in South Korea. When she was 10, with no English except the words “mom, dad, and maybe tiger,” Keish and her family moved to America. Her mother became a seamstress. Her father works at a flea market. They got tax I.D. numbers, which the government routinely gives to immigrants, and paid their taxes.
Keish says it only took her about two years to become fluent in English. As for her undocumented status, she says her schools never found out. She was not a straight-A student. B-plus was her average, she says. Her favorite subject was literature. She became captain of her high school debate team.
And she kept her secret. She was nominated to participate in the Governor’s Honors Program, but without a Social Security number, fear prevented her from pursuing it.
Unfortunately, when Keish graduated from high school two years ago, the U.S. economy was already in a terrible state. In an effort to cutback on spending, the State of Georgia Board of Regents changed its college admissions policy to prevent the admission of undocumented students.
A spokesman for the Board of Regents told CNN the policy change was not about money. Undocumented students actually pay three times more than what Georgia residents pay. The regents said it’s an equity issue. Some argue that in these tough times, every available spot should be reserved for people who are in the United States legally.
To protest the decision to ban undocumented students, a small army of scholars and community activists jumped into action. Lorgia Garcia-Pena, Professor of Spanish and Latino Ethnic Studies at the University of Georgia, was among the first.
She says they started with only an idea. But as word spread, “overnight the books poured in and people in the community said you can have your classes here,” says Professor Pamela Voekel, a colleague of Garcia-Pena’s.
Then they came up with the name, Freedom University, in honor of the Freedom Schools in the Deep South that were developed during the civil rights movement to educate people who were excluded from the education system because of segregation.
Linda Lloyd, director of the Economic Justice Coalition in Athens, supports the new school. Her perspective is shaped by her memories growing up in the segregated South where she was one of six black students in an otherwise all-white elementary school. The black students often didn’t have textbooks. She says she remembers the sting of discrimination — and feeling that quality education was only for a certain few.
While others say this restriction on illegal immigrants is a matter of equity and fairness for U.S. citizens, Lloyd sees it as “a civil rights issue because it reminds me of the same issues that African-Americans were struggling with in the ’50s and ’60s.” Lloyd says, there was once a time when black people were not considered U.S. citizens.
As word spread about Freedom University, the founders began receiving calls from university students and others in the community who offered to drive the undocumented students from Atlanta to Athens, 90 minutes away. Others organized an online book drive. Then, offers started coming in from scholars around the world volunteering to lecture at Freedom University.
The school is only 1 month old, and already has 33 students. Eight had to be turned away because of space.
According to volunteer professors, running a school for undocumented students presents certain challenges. The students worry about law enforcement, about being found out, arrested and deported. They worry about harassment by anti-immigrant activists should they discover the location of the school.
Professor Betina Kaplan says she has learned about perseverance and the hunger to learn. “Our students will not get school credit for the courses, and because they’re undocumented and because of their immigration status, they will not be able to work legally afterward, but they continue to come.”
“It’s wonderful,” says Keish, “they are there because they want to learn.”
This Sunday, Keish and her fellow students will gather again, as they do every Sunday, as they wait for what they hope will be a change of policy from the Georgia Board of Regents. Today, a group of professors and students from the University of Georgia will ask the University’s Council to go on record opposing the Regents’ policy. The Council will decide whether to push for a change that once again allows undocumented students, who have the grades and the scores, to apply to Georgia’s leading colleges.