August 10, 2008

Virginia Native or Child of an Illegal?



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 more than 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 and begin a highly anticipated chapter in one's life: college.

That was easier said than done. Though it now appears I will attend George Mason University as an in-state student, it was an arduous journey.

Education could not have been stressed enough in my home; my mother was the drive that helped me succeed in high school . I carried with me her struggles of a difficult life in Colombia, where many times she walked miles with no shoes to attend a small school in a far-off town. She knew education was the key to success .

As a senior in high school I had applied to various colleges. 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 GMU . 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 .

After registering for classes, I glanced at the final cost of tuition and was confused to see that I was being charged more than $9,000. That was three times as much as I'd expected. It made no sense that I was being charged that rate to commute to a school less than 9 miles away, in the state where I was born and raised.

So I went to the Registrar's Office at school, and workers there told me to reapply for in-state rates. To my disbelief, I received out-of-state rates again.

Afterward, I spoke to an assistant at the Registrar's Office. I then 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 because I had applied to school as a dependent student of an illegal immigrant, I could not receive in-state rates; the fact I, and my parents, paid taxes was apparently irrelevant.

I received sympathy from GMU officials but no help. I was told that they were not allowed to advise me in what steps I should take to improve my situation. They suggested I reapply as an independent student . However, nothing worked out and my options, I felt, had been exhausted.

Because of my parents' situation, I wasn't sure what would happen to them if I continued to make more noise. I paid the full out-of- state tuition in the hope that as time went by other options would open up .

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, I was excited when I got the news I could return for fall 2008 as in- state student. It's been a tough journey, but I'm glad I'm not being discriminated against simply because of my parents' legal status.

Jamilla Penarete is a 19-year-old U.S.-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 to attend this fall. This column was distributed by the Virginia Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization.

Originally published by BY JAMILLA PENARETE.

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