Now, a young immigrant may stay, but how to pay for Cornell

Paula Corts, an immigrant from Uruguay, hopes to complete her final year at Cornell, but she doesn't believe she will be able to afford it. — Photo by Michelle Williams

Day after day, Paula Corts has one number in mind: $59,591, the price of a year’s tuition at Cornell University, where she is a senior.

Paula came to the Vineyard nine years ago. She learned English, graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, and enrolled at Cape Cod Community College. After graduating with honors, she was accepted to Cornell, fulfilling a dream to attend an Ivy League school.

While the excitement of her acceptance letter was fresh, she realized that federal financial aid was not available to her. The excitement dissipated.

On Wednesday, young immigrants nationwide filed paperwork with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services to be able to work and stay in the country without fear of deportation.

Not a grant of permanent legal status, the temporary benefits allow as many as 1.7 million immigrants who came to the country as children to legally obtain drivers’ licenses and work permits. President Obama announced the policy in mid-June.

“They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference. “They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants, and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license or a college scholarship.”

Though the policy gives Paula documentation and makes her residency legal, it doesn’t allow her, or other immigrants, to apply for college grants, loans, or scholarships.

Immigrating to the United States

When she was 12 years old, her parents, Juan and Marta, told her and her 13-year-old brother, Gonzalo, that they needed to talk. They were moving to America.

“The economy in our country was horrible. We used to have business there, a big restaurant,” Marta said, sitting with her husband and daughter in their Vineyard Haven house.

“But we worked long hours for no money,” Juan said.

In 2002, the couple boarded a plane for New York, leaving their children with Juan’s mother until they could find work and a stable place to live. “It was a very hard decision. We didn’t take them because we were very, I don’t know the word,” Marta said, looking to her daughter to translate. “Vulnerable,” Paula completed her mother’s sentence.

“We traveled for 20 hours, and she cried for 22,” Juan said of his wife on the flight to the United States.

Within a week, the two found work on Martha’s Vineyard, where Juan’s brother lived, Marta as a housekeeper and Juan as a maintenance worker. Soon, they rented a house in Oak Bluffs. By the end of the year, Paula and her brother got a long distance call from their mother. They would be reunited.

The siblings traveled to Boston with an uncle, a few bags of their belongings and visas allowing them to remain in the U.S. as tourists for six months. Their parents were at the airport to meet them.

Though she and her brother didn’t speak English, Paula enrolled at Oak Bluffs School and Gonzalo at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. To learn English, Paula said she would watch Lord of the Rings, her favorite movie at the time, over and over.

In time, at Cape Cod Community College, she maintained a 3.8 grade point average. Last spring, a few months before she received her associate degree, Paula began looking at animal science programs.

“I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as I can remember,” Paula said. She has worked at Animal Health Care in West Tisbury since her senior year in high school. “I began to volunteer with them and last summer they hired me as a veterinary assistant.”

After college, she would like to return to the clinic and work as a veterinarian.

Known for its College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University was Paula’s target. She discussed her choice with her mother.

“I said, ‘Paula, please, we don’t have papers here, we’re immigrants,’ and she said, ‘let me try,'” Marta said.

A few weeks later, Marta saw a large envelope addressed to her daughter on her kitchen counter. “The letter was from Cornell, and it said congratulations,” Marta said. “I screamed, my gosh. It was unbelievable.”

High cost of education

For the 2011-2012 school year, the annual cost of attendance was $57,125. Though expensive, Cornell offers millions in financial aid.

In 2011, the university awarded $224 million to 8,931 students, 64 percent of undergraduate student body. On average, students received $33,000.

Paula cannot apply for financial aid through federal programs or a private loan because of her immigration status.

Director of financial aid at Cornell, Thomas Keane, said students without legal documentation are considered international students.

At Cornell, there are 3,868 international students. Each year, 30 to 40 are chosen to receive financial aid, according to the university’s International Students and Scholars Office.

“With domestic students, we try to assist them in meeting their full financial need. For this we have a large pot of money to spend,” Mr. Keane said. “For international students we have a more limited budget.”

For U.S. students whose families make less than $60,000 per year, the university covers the entire cost of college.

Tax returns filed by Juan and Marta show they made $30,000 for the year, but because she is considered an international student, Paula didn’t qualify for aid.

Brendan O’Brien, director of Cornell’s international student office, said the university policy stems from a commitment to meeting the needs of domestic students first. When discussing aid available for domestic students, he was surprised by the amount available. “Twenty-two million. Wow, is that how much aid was given?”

Though she didn’t receive aid from the university, Island groups gave Paula several thousand in scholarship dollars. She received $2,500 from the Trustee of the deLoura Family, $2,000 from the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard, and $2,000 from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. To pay the remaining $50,000 for her first year at Cornell, her third college year, the family borrowed money from family and friends.

“That kind of bill reeks havoc on a landscaper and a housekeeper,” Chilmark resident Robert Kenney said in a conversation recently. He has known the family for years, since Marta began cleaning his house. “It’s absolutely unconscionable for the school to imagine this family can afford the cost of tuition,” he said.

With her bill paid, the family traveled to upstate New York to drop their daughter off at the Ivy League school. “My dreams came true that day,” Marta said. “The school was wonderful, it was so beautiful.”

Paula moved into the Alice H. Cook House, a stately brick building with a dining room, leisure common area, and library. On the first day she met her roommate Sarah Chung, an international student from Seoul.

Together, the two women studied, tried new types of takeout food, and watched movies. Ms. Chung described her roommate as “willing, independent, neat, hard worker, and very diligent,” in an email. They will live together this year if Paula remains in school.

Though the family managed to pay tuition last year, they don’t think it’s possible again.

Juan said he had hoped President Obama’s policy would let her apply for aid.

Immigration action at the University

Two years ago, Cornell president David Skorton signed a letter in support of the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country as children, but the measure failed in the Senate.

“I’m a first-generation American,” President Skorton wrote in the letter. “It’s a common experience to come to a country from elsewhere as an American dream. We want to make the American dream possible for these deserving students.”

In November, three Cornell students delivered a letter to the university president calling for financial reforms to improve the lives of immigrant students.

“Cornell has not taken any concrete action to support undocumented youth currently enrolled or attempting to enroll in our institution,” the letter, written by Jessica Perez of the class of 2013, David Angeles ’13, and Luz Aceves ’14. “Cornell University does not provide legal, emotional or additional financial support meant to address the dire and unique circumstances and needs of undocumented students.” 
The three students came to the country as children illegally and said they’re speaking for themselves and others.

According to the Cornell Sun, the student newspaper, there are between 15 to 30 undocumented students at Cornell.

Ms. Perez said that receiving financial aid through the current system is “all a matter of luck.”

“The international office says they have nothing against undocumented students, but nothing is being done to help them,” she said in a phone interview. “As a school, we are not living up to our motto. The university’s motto, said by co-founder Ezra Cornell, is ‘I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.'”

In November, President Skorton pledged to find sources of funding for undocumented students at an undergraduate student government meeting. He has not announced any sources of funding yet.

In an email to Paula, he said he understood her disappointment with the financial aid process. “We receive many more financial aid applications from international and undocumented students than we have funds to support,” Mr. Skorton wrote. “We have a limited budget, set each year, for international/undocumented student financial aid.”

President Skorton could not be reached directly for comment.

“This is the dream, but now it’s like all the doors are starting to close,” Marta said, wiping a tear, as her husband held her hand.

On Friday, Paula will begin a new semester, unsure how long she will remain a student. By Friday, Paula is expected to pay $12,000 of her $59,591 bill, though she is unsure how she will do so.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “I just want to go back to school, study for my classes, be a student.”