It’s an exciting time for college freshman as they begin classes this week. Among them are students who just a few months ago didn’t think they could afford college. That changed July 1 when a new state law went into effect, making illegal immigrants eligible for the in state tuition rate at Connecticut colleges and universities. WNPR’s Lucy Nalpathanchil introduces us to one of those students, an 18 year old named Karen.
Karen doesn’t want her last name used because she’s not here legally. But you wouldn’t know that just by looking at her. She looks like a typical teenager. She’s petite with long brown curly hair, and wears hoop earrings, and stylish clothes in her favorite color.
“Half of my wardrobe is pink.”
I first met Karen inside St Rose of Lima Church in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven. It was ground zero for the in state tuition campaign and is still a place that advocates for immigrants. Many members of the congregation are from Mexico and Ecuador. Father James Manship remembers the first time he heard Karen’s story.
“I met Karen about three years ago. Her mom was taking ESL classes here. One of the tutors said, ‘hey, I know this really bright kid and she doesn’t know how she’s going to be able to continue her studies.’ And so that began the connection with Karen and her mom.
Karen's mother and father brought her to the U.S from Cuenca, Ecuador when she was just six years old.
"It was the weirdest feeling ever. When I first went to school I didn’t speak any English, and I remember all my friends used to speak to me in sign language. To come and play they would sign to me to come and play. You can’t explain it it just happened.”
On the playground, her friends used gestures to communicate until she learned the language.She’s often asked if she’d go back. Karen says sure, for a vacation but she’ll tell anyone who asks she’s American not Ecuadorian.
“It’s so different. It’s a place where I seriously don’t see myself because culture wise, I am different and social wise, I am also different from what they are.”
She talks with her iphone in hand. Occasionally she looks down and uses her thumb to scroll on and off the home screen. That’s how she found out she got into Southern Connecticut State University.
“I was home and was just watching tv and I was like I got an email from Southern and I opned it up and was like yeah!”
Her parents were the first people she told. Weeks later and she still has the acceptance email on her phone.
“It says it is my great pleasure to inform you that you have been accepted into SCSU this fall. And it says the decision was based on your continued acad excellence and potential intellectual growth within a university community.”
Karen did well as a student at the High School for the Community in New Haven and she reaceived several private scholarships. She also qualified for the New Haven Promise scholarship program which will pay twenty-five percent of her tuition the first year. With that help, she has her freshman year tuition covered. If the law had never passed, Karen wouldn’t have been able to afford the out of state tuition rate at SCSU over $18,000 a year. The in state rate is dramatically less, just $8200 for two semesters.
That bill will make it easier for her parents to save for her sophomore year but they just started putting away money for college. So Karen says she’ll probably find a part-time job to help. And she’s also going to be a commuter student, taking the bus to get to her classes.
On a recent trip to campus she talked about how excited she was for her freshman year to begin as she walked around the college bookstore.
“Just being here and just getting to a new place laughs it’s a whole new experience like I said its going to be something new for me, my college life.”
She knows not everyone in the state agrees with the law or understands why it means so much to undocumented students to have an affordable education. She says she's as much a Connecticut resident as other incoming freshman
“I’m not any different from teenagers here. I still want to go out and have fun. People think I’m diff bc I don’t have what they have. As a human being I’m not any different. I’m the same as everybody else.”
Karen’s going to study early childhood education. She loves little kids especially her brother who was born nine years ago in the U.S. Ironically, he spends his summer vacation with family back in Ecuador something she and her parents can’t do. But Karen references the federal Dream Act, a proposal that will allow illegal immigrants like her who were brought to the u.s as children to apply for citizenship without getting deported first. But she knows Congress won’t pass that bill overnight. She says until then, she’s going to study hard and get her college degree. She says hope got her this far.