Georgia

Undocumented and Unafraid: A Conversation with Georgia’s Freedom University

Georgia is one of three states to ban undocumented students from attending public universities and paying in-state tuition. To combat educational segregation in Georgia, Freedom University is an organization that strives to advance the human right to education for undocumented students. Founded in 2011, Freedom University is an underground school that provides tuition-free college preparation courses for undocumented students in Atlanta, Georgia.

Freedom University is the only school exclusively formed for undocumented youth in the United States. It is a sanctuary for undocumented young people ages 17-25 who want to attend college. The academic year includes Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters, and the program accepts 25 students every semester. Faculty members from Emory University, Morehouse College, Georgia State University, and Georgia Tech volunteer their time and expertise as faculty at Freedom University because they believe in educational equity for all students.

Freedom University provides undocumented students with college preparation courses, college and scholarship application assistance, and leadership training to empower undocumented students, many of whom are a part of the Latinx community. While students do not earn college credit directly from Freedom University, many of its course offerings prepare students for College Board CLEP exams for college credit that can be transferred to a future university.

Since 2017, 50 percent of Freedom University’s students have won full scholarships to four-year colleges and universities. Beyond academics, Freedom University seeks to address the unique needs of undocumented students and provide them with DACA application assistance and weekly mental health resources from trained therapists.

Rafael Aragón, who serves as one of Freedom University’s three DACA staff members, is also a graduate of the program. Rafael opened up about the impact Freedom University has had on him and other undocumented students in Georgia.

Latina Republic: Why is there a need in Georgia for Freedom University? What are the special circumstances in Georgia laws that don’t make education free to all students?

At Freedom University, we believe that education is a human right. The reason why Freedom University is needed in Georgia is because there is no federal policy or regulation that dictates how state-level university systems should treat their undocumented student populations. So, that leaves it up entirely to each state, which makes things confusing for undocumented students who are trying to get into college and have to figure out what exactly their state’s policy is on undocumented student access to public universities.

There are 21 states that allow undocumented students to access public universities with in-state tuition rates.

There are three states, however, that have some form of admissions ban barring undocumented students from enrolling in their public universities: Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Of those three, Georgia is often regarded as the worst because it doesn’t make a distinction between DACA students and fully undocumented students. Georgia just flat out bans all undocumented students from their top public universities. That’s part of the reason why Freedom University is here in Georgia.

Latina Republic: Georgia ranks eighth in the nation with the highest DACA population and it’s one of the three states that ban undocumented students. It is so shocking because the rest of the states are very low on the rankings, meanwhile Georgia’s is so high. It is unbelievable that these policies exist.

Exactly, just considering the sheer amount of undocumented people that live here, you would think that policy makers would want a more educated population.

Latina Republic: What is your recruitment and interview process for Freedom University’s undocumented student candidates?

As far as reaching out to students, we do a variety of things just to make sure we cover all our bases. We run a lot of ads on Spanish radio, do a lot of interviews with Spanish-speaking media sources, like Univision and Telemundo. We also have been on Korean radio before because Korean is the third most common language spoken in Georgia.

Undocumented Asians are also the fastest growing part of the undocumented population, and we want to make sure we reach all undocumented students.

One of the strongest ways we reach students is on social media. That’s really where students are, so that’s where we show up to recruit them. Then after students decide, “I want to go to Freedom University,” we have an application process on our website and then have a phone call interview to verify the student is an undocumented student, and not someone with negative intentions.

Then, we have an in-person meeting to make sure that the student’s ultimate goals are aligned with what Freedom University provides. We are a pathway to higher education, and help students access college scholarships. That might not be the path that everyone chooses, so we want to make sure we are using our resources in a way that aligns with our goal of increasing undocumented student access to higher education.

Latina Republic: So you do have to unfortunately say no to some students?

Unfortunately, but only because we have limited seats in our classroom and finite resources.

We accept undocumented students who show a drive to learn and contribute to their communities, regardless of their academic record or SAT scores. Once accepted, we only require that students commit to attending all of their classes, to supporting one another, and to not give up on themselves.

The students who are the best fit for Freedom University are students who are open-minded, have a love for learning, and a love for themselves and their community because that’s really what makes Freedom University what it is.

Latina Republic: That is really inspiring and it’s not difficult at all to find passionate undocumented students. How does the faculty recruitment process work and what do faculty gain from teaching at Freedom University?

As far as recruiting faculty members, we try to democratize how we have classes. What Freedom University normally does is poll the students on what classes they would like to take the following semester. Then according to what the students have chosen, our Executive Director, Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, seeks out and recruits qualified professors from local colleges and universities like Emory University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College.

Professors even join us from banned universities, like Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. As far as what they get out of it, I’ve heard many different things from professors, but I think one of the most important things is how different the learning environment is at Freedom University. It’s not just your professors talking at you, telling you all the things that you need to learn. It’s more of a shared environment where students learn from their professors, whatever it is that they’re experts in, and the students bring in their perspectives and personal experiences that they’re experts in and they share and teach their professors about life as undocumented youth.

We learn from each other. Another thing that I have heard recently from one professor is that there is this frustration within academics who want to do something with the knowledge that they have, the tools that they have developed from years of studying, but they are stuck in classrooms where the teaching isn’t having the impact that they wish they could be having.

So, teaching at Freedom gives them an opportunity to turn their teaching into a direct impact on undocumented students and the larger immigrant rights movement. Beyond that, being in a classroom with students who actively want to learn, not for a grade, but for the sake of knowledge, is something that professors don’t often see in their classrooms at other institutions.

Latina Republic: What type of protections do you offer students once they are enrolled?

The most notable protection that we provide is meeting at an undisclosed location. We are a super-secret underground school, and people like to romanticize that, but it is true. There are dangers to gathering a bunch of undocumented people, especially undocumented people who love themselves and believe in themselves as a community and are proud of who they are.

Not everybody is so happy to see a lot of young people like that together. Beyond that, we also provide Know- Your-Rights Trainings to help students and their families be better informed about their constitutional rights in encounters with police and ICE. And for the first 15 weeks of this pandemic, we also went on weekly “FU Coronavirus Grocery Runs” to provide food, supplies, and medicine to all of our students and their families.

We also provide culturally-informed mental health workshops led by Latinx mental health professionals.

Those are some of the ways we offer protection to our students. We not only keep them safe from people that would do them harm, but we also want them to be safe inside their heads, when they’re going about their lives, and when interacting with law enforcement. So they are safe; their health is safe. Unfortunately, a lot of our population is unprotected by health insurance and things like that, so we want to do everything we can to make sure that they are as healthy as possible.

 

Freedom University students after a march at the annual Martin Luther King Day parade in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo credit: Freedom University.

 

“To me, Freedom University means family. It means I don’t have to suffer in silence, constantly hiding my identity. Thanks to the FU Corona grocery runs, my family and I were able to eat healthier without worrying about our finances. After attending Freedom University for only two semesters, I can honestly say that I have become more comfortable in my own skin. Not just from looking and feeling better, but I no longer feel like my identity as an Undocumented person is something I should be ashamed of.” – Student at Freedom University

Latina Republic: How do you equip students with the knowledge of the type of resources you have if encountering law enforcement? 

We do Know-Your-Rights Trainings, but they are different from most organizational trainings about encounters with law enforcement. Know-Your-Rights Trainings at Freedom University are unlike any other training because they are tailored and geared specifically toward undocumented students. I think that when you do Know-Your-Rights trainings with marginalized populations, people of color, undocumented people, women, it’s vital that you tailor it to that population. 

There is something that my father tells me and told me a lot when I was younger and a little bit more reckless:

 “Look, if you’re crossing the street, even if you have the right of way as a pedestrian, if you see a car, stop. Don’t push it. Even if you know you are in the right. I don’t care what kind of settlement we receive because at the end of the day, no amount of money is going to bring you back to me.” 

I think that in dealing with law enforcement, it’s the same thing. You can know your rights and exercise them to their full capacity, but ultimately, your life is the most important thing. So, our Know-Your-Rights Training is very practical. We do practice runs of what it would be like to be pulled over by the police or stopped on the street or if ICE comes to your home or place of work.

Dr. Soltis, who designs and leads the trainings with local attorneys, emphasizes to students that their well-being is more important than being right, like preventing an illegal search from taking place or arguing with a bad cop who is breaking the law.  All that stuff can be handled later in court. She teaches us how to stay calm, how to assert our constitutional rights, and how to stay alive. I think that these are critical things to keep in mind when designing Know-Your-Rights Trainings with marginalized populations and people of color. 

Latina Republic: What would be your top advice to give to an undocumented student if coming in contact with police? 

One of our professors, Nse Ufot, is an attorney who co-taught a recent Know-Your-Rights Training and one of the things that she said to summarize the fifth amendment of the Constitution was “No self-snitching.”  Students thought it was funny, but I think it’s incredibly  important. Don’t tell on yourself. Even beyond no self-snitching, as much as you can, don’t speak to law enforcement officers. Just stay silent until you have an attorney present, and things will go a lot better for you.

Latina Republic: It is very apparent that Freedom University has an emphasis on academics but also the well-being of undocumented students. How is mental health prioritized and embedded into the curriculum?

We have mental health workshops where students get to come in and really be open about who they are. We have a trained therapist come in and in the space of group workshops, students slowly become comfortable enough to be open and vulnerable, and do the healing that is necessary for them to grow. 

They can be open about their traumas, the difficulties that they have faced, without the fear of being fetishized or pitied by people who don’t understand their difficulties. Instead the opposite, being truly fully understood by people who have lived similar things in a way that you can feel embraced by that sense of community.

I think for me as an individual, especially when I was coming into Freedom University as a student, that was an experience I had never had anywhere else. 

I was pretty open about being undocumented before Freedom University, but I was never open about the difficulties about being undocumented. I could just simply say “I am undocumented,” but I didn’t feel safe talking to anybody about how hard it was for me having to drive my mom someplace, then helping my dad do this, and starting work since I was 13-14, just very young. 

All these things that not a lot of people understood, and then in this new environment at Freedom University, I just felt more at home. When I opened my mouth to speak my truth, I heard nothing but affirmations from people that understood it completely. That was a magical moment for me, and I think that that moment just keeps happening every time we have a new cohort of students. 

Latina Republic: Having attended Freedom University yourself, what impact has the university had on you as an individual?

So much! Freedom University really opens your mind. It changes the way you see yourself as an undocumented person. It also changes the way you look at the world as an undocumented person. It makes a lot of things easier, like building solidarity with other people.

You understand that our struggles are connected because of all the learning that we do in our human rights classes. You know, some things are difficult. 

When I went off to college, I had a rough time moving away from an environment where I felt completely supported and helped, and from a community that loved me. Then I was at an institution with a bunch of people who didn’t understand my experience or my life. They just expected different things from me.

That was a difficult transition, but at the same time I always had Freedom University to back me up if things got difficult, and that was beautiful. 

Latina Republic: How is your curriculum transformative in the lives of undocumented students? Once students graduate, what key learnings do they take with them?

We have a wide-ranging curriculum that includes courses in the social sciences, humanities, law, and biological sciences, as well as the arts. This past year, for example, we had courses in human rights, evolutionary biology, Latin American revolutionary history, healthcare, college writing composition, mural painting, and even a Mexican son jarocho music ensemble. We have all these interesting classes that really change people’s perspectives and the way they see themselves in the world. 

I think that the human rights class, taught by Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, who is the Executive Director and Professor of Human Rights, is really the foundation of the learning that we do at Freedom University. It’s what introduces us to international human rights law, immigration history, social movement theory, and concepts like Paolo’s Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed.”

All these complex ideas that are written in really difficult to read books about theory, they’re made real by the fact that we are on the ground and we can engage in dialogue about them and we can see how our real-lived lives pertain to what somebody wrote in a book years ago. 

Specifically this human rights class, students often times come in seeing themselves as undocumented and guilty, having to hide, live in fear, and be ashamed.

This human rights class really challenges us  to question how immigration became criminalized and explore histories of colonization and imperialism in  our home countries that caused people to migrate to the United States in the first place. 

Then we start to get into all of these other issues that not only re-orient the way they see themselves, but re-orient the way that we look at other people in the world and their movements for liberation.

We start to truly understand, “if this happened to me, something happened to them too, and if we align with one another, we can help make right how we have been wronged.”

 

Freedom University students deliver a panel presentation to Spelman College, discussing their experiences as Black and undocumented in the South. Photo credit: Laura Emiko Soltis.

 

“I joined Freedom University in the summer of 2017 and even after three years, my mentors never fail to remind me that I am a human being who is worthy of not only higher education, but of every single right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among many other important lessons, Freedom University has taught me to be unapologetically myself regardless of any circumstance or status. At Freedom University, I found my voice and my beloved community. The people at Freedom University who have invested in my personal growth have impacted my life, and the way I perceive injustice in the world. Without them, I would not be the woman I am today.” – Alumna, Freedom University

Latina Republic: Do you stay in touch with your graduates? Do you have any success stories that you want to share?

We do stay in touch with our graduates! As far as success stories, every one of our students is a success story. We come in wide-eyed and not knowing so many things, a little bit scared of the world. Then we leave affirming our existence as people, changing the world wherever we go, educating others, creating new leaders where we are. We have students who start  organizations and clubs at their colleges and universities.

We have students who have gone above and beyond whatever it is that they were asked to do to become incredible people. I see all students as a success because they really took the time to go through Freedom University. They learned about themselves as human beings, and changed their perspectives on the world. If anything is important, it’s that we do that work. That’s a success. 

As far as staying in touch, I can speak from experience. We go off as students but we never forget that Freedom University is always there for us whenever there’s a difficult moment or if we need support.

My first semester of college, I left Georgia and headed to Connecticut to attend Eastern Connecticut State University. 

I brought my winter gear. I thought it was good, but I didn’t realize the winter gear I had was not enough for a New England winter! At that point, I hadn’t established any type of connection, any friendship where I could be like, “Hey, can you help me out?” It was also the first time, since I was very young, that I wasn’t working. I was truly a broke college student. 

I thought, “How am I going to get a coat or something?” Then one of our other students who graduated from Freedom with me was there and he had run into the same problem. We both looked at each other and said, “Let’s reach out to our friends at Freedom and see if they can help us.” 

We reached out to Dr. Soltis and she sent each of us a big winter coat, gloves, and scarves. She quickly raised the money from supporters across the country who wanted to support us in whatever way we needed extra help. Dr. Soltis grew up in Minnesota, so she knew what it was like to live in the cold and got the right things for us. I was warm and toasty for the rest of my time in Connecticut! 

That’s just one example of the ways we stay in touch. It’s not just “Hello, I hope you’re doing alright,” but a support system for our grads. It’s important to us that when our students are out there being magnificent, changing the world, that we do whatever we can to support them. 

Latina Republic: It sounds like students grow close and become a family while making so many connections they never had before.

Exactly! Things that we talk about and are open about, we aren’t that way with anybody else. It’s really difficult not to have these incredibly strong bonds. Every generation that goes through Freedom University, not only has Freedom University as an organization to support them, but they also have each other and they support each other all the time. 

 

Undocumented students embrace each other on the eve of the DACA Supreme Court decision. Photo: Laura Emiko Soltis.

 

“Freedom University gave me everything I have today. I’ve been supported by a hundred hands throughout my entire journey” – Current student, Freedom University

Latina Republic: You mentioned the problem that the state of Georgia has in terms of its policies and how punitive they are. Does the school get involved with the education policy at the state level? Do you reach out to NGOs and lobbyists to get education to become open to all these residents for college? 

Beyond the classroom, Freedom University engages in the public sphere to advance our mission to end educational segregation of undocumented students in higher education. One way we do this is through nonviolent civil disobedience. We have organized direct actions at the Georgia Board of Regents and disrupted their meetings with creative civil disobedience that serves to hold decision makers accountable for segregationist policies and also educate the public through news coverage.

We have also organized direct actions at the banned public universities and hosted classroom sit-ins to call attention to the issue here in Georgia so that people and policy makers will act in a way that is fair and beneficial for undocumented people in the state. 

We have also organized campaigns at private universities that can set their own admissions and financial aid policies. And we have secured many victories. Most notably, in 2015, we were able to successfully pressure Emory to adopt fair admissions and financial aid policies to welcome undocumented students. That was a big win for us, and it was a big win for everyone who cares about true equity and inclusion.

We also work with national partners to help open doors for undocumented students in Georgia. For example, Freedom University was instrumental in developing a relationship with Oglethorpe University, and connecting them to TheDream.US scholarship program. As a result, we helped open another private university in Georgia to undocumented students. 

 

Freedom University students protest outside of the Georgia Board of Regents against the ban of undocumented students in public universities. Photo: Miguel Martinez.

 

Latina Republic: Who represents Freedom University in outreach events and who are you trying to reach when you do these events at the private universities? 

It depends on the event, but we try to have a diversity of perspectives and expertise on our panels, so we can reach and connect with as many people as possible. For example, we often have staff and faculty and students and board members speak to audiences to share perspectives of undocumented youth, educators, mentors, and in the case of our Board Chairman, Charles Black, perspectives of leaders in the Black Freedom Movement in Atlanta. 

Sometimes we present to classrooms, other times to college admissions staff, or audiences full of professors who want to learn better strategies to support their undocumented students.

In all of these events, we treat them as opportunities for students to share their stories and improve their public speaking skills.  This is also important for self-advocacy, because nobody is going to advocate for you better than you are.

As Freedom University’s Public Speaking Coordinator, a big part of my job is helping students who want to share their stories publicly develop a powerful way of sharing their truths. 

We need to know how to advocate for ourselves, speak in public spaces, and stand firmly in our truth that we’re human beings and have the right to education. As students get practice doing this, they feel more comfortable. When students graduate and we send them off to college, they’re also much stronger public speakers.  

 

Freedom University’s Rafael Aragón standing firmly outside the Supreme Court on the eve of the DACA decision. Photo: Laura Emiko Soltis.

 

“Freedom University has taught me to love myself, my community, and the people of this planet so much that I am compelled to act against injustice in defense of the oppressed. I believe that spark exists within every Freedom University graduate, and we carry it with us wherever we go.” – Student, Freedom University

 

Latina Republic: It’s amazing that Freedom University provides not only the foundation but the lasting support that students need to access higher education in our polarized political climate. What is your vision for the future of undocumented youth in Georgia?

I hope, first, that Georgia will work together with undocumented youth so they no longer have to be undocumented, so they can just be youth in Georgia. My vision for undocumented youth in Georgia is that they can take part in this moment in history and lead us towards justice and what’s right. That’s my vision and I pray it becomes a reality. 

 


Students from Freedom University participating in a walkout to the Supreme Court on the eve of DACA Supreme Court hearing. Photo: Laura Emiko Soltis

 

Latina Republic: If you sat across the Georgia Board of Regents, what would you tell them?

If I sat across the Georgia Board of Regents, I would tell them to use their own college educations to  seriously consider and weigh the financial burden of deporting Georgia’s undocumented student population after investing in their K-12 education beside  the financial benefit of allowing thousands of young people to study, earn better jobs, and contribute more to Georgia’s economy.

Latina Republic: What advice would you give to undocumented students living in Georgia seeking a college education? 

For students living in Georgia seeking a college education, first, apply to Freedom University if you can! It’s more than just the aid that you get when it comes to your college essays, SAT, and your application process. 

It’s also all about the revolutionary kind of learning you will receive  and the immense personal growth you will experience. It’s really an unmatched experience, for me and the rest of our students. I feel like they feel the same way. So I encourage people who live in Georgia and are undocumented to apply to Freedom University. 

Also as far as advice, don’t let the political climate or whatever may be going in the news discourage your drive to better yourself. I think that as undocumented people, we often hear and internalize, “‘you can’t do this; you can’t do that.” It’s important for us to realize that those walls are just words on paper. 

If you want to pursue a higher education, take your education into your own hands and do what you must to complete your goals. If you want to go in a different direction, go in that direction but do it 100% wholeheartedly. 

We, as human beings are equal to everybody else, have as much capacity to do incredible and amazing things. We have proven it time and time again. If you really want a higher education, go for it. Wherever you are, look for people who will support you with all their heart and build a community that lifts everyone up. 

 

Follow Freedom University on Facebook @freedomuniversitygeorgia and on Instagram @fu_georgia, and visit www.freedom-university.org

 

Featured  Image: Professor Nse Ufot and Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, Executive Director, with Freedom University students. Photo Credits: Rafael Aragón/Freedom University.





Christy Canjura | Notre Dame of Maryland University
Immigrating to the United States from El Salvador at five years old, Christy is devoted to striving towards a society in which immigrants are recognized for who they are beyond a legal status. As a DACA recipient, her experiences cultivated her outlook on the various issues immigrants face and led her on the path to become an immigration lawyer. She is a junior at Notre Dame of Maryland University, majoring in Political Science. Through her studies, Christy has expanded her knowledge on the political climate between the U.S. and Latin American countries by participating in the Washington Model Organizations of American States (OAS). She has also moderated campus-wide debates delving into various beliefs about immigration, including views from the general public and political candidates. Her passion and empathy towards the diverse array of issues immigrants face is evident. Christy believes her experience as an Immigration Writer will assist her to share compelling stories about the meaningful contributions immigrants make in the U.S. Christy is committed to uphold the Latina Republic’s mission to build bridges between the U.S. and Latin American countries with the power of storytelling.