Free tuition, secret locations: the ‘underground university’ teaching 25 undocumented students at a time

<span>Freedom University’s 2024 graduating class and alumni, with Dr Laura Emiko Soltis, on 19 May.</span><span>Photograph: Terrell Clark</span>
Freedom University’s 2024 graduating class and alumni, with Dr Laura Emiko Soltis, on 19 May.Photograph: Terrell Clark

Only hours after Joe Biden spoke at Atlanta’s Morehouse College – a 19 May ceremony watched closely in light of student protests in support of Palestine – a much smaller, visibly different graduation ceremony took place nearby.

The ceremony’s location was not publicized, a nod to past threats the Ku Klux Klan has directed at the school, as well as continuing hate mail and social media attacks.

The school’s director, Dr Laura Emiko Soltis, wore a keffiyeh while addressing parents, faculty and students from the stage. Flor M, a commencement speaker and alumna, quipped: “I know in my heart I will never have to demand a divestment from Freedom U.” The proceedings included a performance of son jarocho, the lively rhythm from Veracruz, Mexico; the 18 graduates and small audience of supporters sang and clapped along.

Graduates here were receiving recognition from Freedom University – the nation’s only program providing free college-level and college prep classes for undocumented students, with studies grounded in a human rights framework. It was the “underground” school’s 10th graduating class since relocating to Atlanta from Athens, Georgia, in 2014, a deliberate move to tap into the city’s civil rights legacy.

In that time, more than half of its 300 or so graduates have gone on to college with full scholarships, and many have participated in advocacy work, particularly involving access to higher education for undocumented students in Georgia – one of the most prohibitive states in the country when it comes to tuition and admissions policies at public colleges and universities.

Most of this year’s graduates were going on to private colleges with dreams that are anything but certain in a presidential election year when the Republican candidate is vowing to deport millions and no substantive immigration reform has made it through Congress in a quarter century.

Sherly – who spoke to the Guardian using only her first name due to safety concerns – was one of them. Her mother brought her and her younger brother to the US from Tocoa, Honduras, in 2014, when she was only eight. She remembers wearing a dark blue skirt and light blue shirt when her family crossed a river in a rubber raft. After her family settled in Georgia, she didn’t realize she was “different” from her fellow students until her junior year in high school.

“All my peers wanted to go to college. I wanted to go, too. I went to my [high school] counselor and realized I wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid … I would cry myself to sleep, thinking: ‘If I don’t go to college, what am I going to do?’”

A neighbor knew about Freedom University. Sherly applied, got in and became one of the few Freedom University students still in high school and taking college-level classes on the weekend.

I would cry myself to sleep, thinking: ‘If I don’t go to college, what am I going to do?’

“From Monday to Friday, I was with some kids who didn’t even want to be there,” she recalled. “On the weekend, we were talking about all these issues, and everybody was participating. The connection was so much stronger.”

Sherly will be attending Agnes Scott College, a private women’s liberal arts school in Decatur, Georgia, in the fall, thanks to a partnership that school formed with the Golden Door scholarship for undocumented students nearly a decade ago.

Over the last decade, Freedom University has fought to open the doors of Georgia’s private and public colleges to students like Sherly who are eager to learn, most of whom were brought to the US as young children, Soltis, the director, told the Guardian.

The state passed regressive policies in 2010 that not only make lower in-state tuition rates at all public colleges and universities unavailable to undocumented students, but also prohibit them from even applying to the top public schools, including Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. Soltis, faculty and students at Freedom University later began protesting against these policies.

Then, in the absence of change from Georgia’s legislature, the school launched three years of advocacy together with students at Atlanta’s Emory University, until the private school finally decided in 2017 to consider all undocumented applicants and provide them with financial aid.

By 2019, Freedom University’s advocacy efforts resulted in Oglethorpe University, another Atlanta private school, creating a similar policy – including partnering with TheDream.US, a national scholarship program for undocumented students who came to the US before reaching the age of 16, arrived before November 2018, and have continuously lived here since. About 10% of Oglethorpe’s current student body is undocumented, Soltis said.

Looking back at these milestones, Soltis said: “We’ve created a pipeline.”

But even that pipeline doesn’t reach many of the estimated 4,000 undocumented students who graduate from Georgia’s high schools every year, as the much less expensive public colleges and universities remain out of reach.

Undocumented students also face obstacles elsewhere – 24 states offer them in-state tuition, but the rest of the country is a confusing patchwork of policies.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, some of Freedom University’s graduates have had to leave the state to continue their educations at schools like Vermont’s Middlebury College, or Massachusetts’ Smith College.

Charles Black, chairman of Freedom University’s board of advisers, called this a “brain drain” in his 19 May speech to graduates. He compared the situation facing Georgia’s undocumented students to his own when he was a young man in Florida, several years before that state began integrating public colleges and universities. He decided to leave to study at Atlanta’s historically black college for men, Morehouse.

At Morehouse, Black became a leader in the Atlanta student movement, helping desegregate public facilities (including schools) through marches, sit-ins and picketing in the early 60s. He is one of two surviving students who took the only seminar Martin Luther King Jr taught at Morehouse, on social philosophy.

Black said he drew comparisons between the situation facing undocumented people in the US today and the struggles of his people. “Their labor has been exploited for generations in this country – and when they want to start being treated like human beings, then they’re a problem,” he said. “That’s a parallel to me – it’s the same thing my ancestors went through.”

Black points to the 1948 UN declaration of human rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to education … and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

“The nation as a whole is not accepting the fact that education is a human right,” Black said. This affects the estimated 840,000 undocumented immigrants ages 18-24 living in the US, and the nearly 100,000 who graduate high school each year, none of whom are eligible for federal financial aid.

The nation as a whole is not accepting the fact that education is a human right

Emil’ Keme, an English and Indigenous studies professor at Emory, taught his first course at Freedom University this spring. Keme, who is K’iche’ Maya, taught a human rights course focused on Indigenous rights, which included a look at the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, passed in 2007.

Although most of Freedom University’s students come from Latin American countries with deep Indigenous histories, “a lot of them don’t have much awareness of their backgrounds”, said Keme.

Keme found his students were “hungry to learn. Especially because the laws of Georgia don’t allow them to go to [public] college, having that space to have debates and learning at the college level generated even more hunger.”

In addition to human rights, Freedom University offers courses in Stem, arts and health, as well as college prep. Some students take exams to obtain college credit for core requirement classes.

The 2020 graduate Flor M – her full name is also being withheld for her safety – remembered taking a class on human rights and education taught by Soltis. “I learned about the shared histories of oppressed peoples – the [civil rights era of the Black] freedom movement, even the Chicano movement,” she told the Guardian. “It made me feel empowered, and hopeful.”

Flor, whose mother brought her to the US in 2003, when she was three years old, spoke to this year’s graduating class having graduated from Oglethorpe, where she majored in sociology, the day before. She doesn’t want to stop there, however, and has enrolled in a summer graduate program at Morehouse School of Medicine, which could lead to a master’s degree. She hopes to learn about new cannabis therapeutics. “I struggled with mental health because of my [immigration] status,” she said. “I’m thinking of solutions outside of the medicines available now.”

Freedom University provides free group and individual therapy to students, partners with attorneys to help students and their families navigate complex immigration laws, and pays for fees that come with applying for US residency or citizenship. And the program trains high school counselors and college admissions personnel nationwide in “best practices for welcoming, supporting, and protecting undocumented students”.

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This is what Soltis called “more holistic support” – and is one reason why the program admits about 25 students at a time, given the cost of such services. Freedom University is funded by individual donations, foundations and grants.

Another reason is safety, she said. Public vitriol directed at undocumented immigrants has led Soltis to change locations of classes, which are held on weekends, every year. The locations aren’t publicly disclosed. Volunteer drivers take students to and from classes, since the students cannot obtain driver’s licenses in Georgia. The drivers are vetted and are prohibited from revealing locations of classes.

Soltis’s biggest fear: “the convergence of anti-immigrant sentiment and school shootings”.

Freedom University students are aware of this and other dangers, said Keme. “These students have to protect themselves,” he said. “They deal with the fear of, ‘What if they catch me?’” – referring to immigration authorities. “It’s a lot of stress. They also have family responsibilities, and have to work. It’s a lot, and I’m so impressed by how they manage.”

Sherly said she found going to class “exciting”, especially as she started to see a “bigger picture” – including how government works, and policymaking about education. Now, “I’m thinking maybe I should take pre-law … Maybe that’s a path I could take.”

The 2024 Freedom University graduate also has a clear idea of why increased access to higher education is not just important for undocumented students such as herself, but for the country as a whole. Without it, she said, “they’re losing a chance to have great minds”.