As an admissions deadline neared, Solanlly Canas, a high-school valedictorian and an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, began to give up hope that she could afford to go to college. Then she got an email that “changed my life.”
Solanlly (at left in photo) got the email just days before the deadline by which incoming students across the country must make final decisions on where they plan to enroll in college.
Barred from receiving federal financial aid because of her legal status, Solanlly was staring at a $16,000 annual tuition gap at her school of choice, Fairfield University. Because she is not a U.S. citizen, the University of Connecticut offered her no aid. She had resigned to work extra hours at Walgreens and save up enough money to pay for Gateway Community College, one class at a time.
At the same time, her close friend Chastity Berrios (at right in photo), a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, was figuring out how to make ends meet in college—and stick with her trusty companion as they begin their college journey. Both appealed financial aid offers they received for Fairfield University.
The pair, the top two seniors at High School in the Community (HSC), shared their story in the Independent last month. The story elicited an outpouring of support from readers impressed by the students’ resilience and hard work. Some offered words of encouragement. Others sent in checks to the school, adding a few hundred dollars to defray college expenses. New Haven state Rep. Roland Lemar read the story and started making phone calls. Meanwhile, Solanlly and Chastity enlisted their teachers and other supporters in a letter-writing campaign.
The team effort worked: On Wednesday, the students, who left HSC in January to join an early college program, returned to their high school to share good news.
“We’re going to Fairfield!”
They recounted their story Wednesday afternoon, sitting on the curb outside their Water Street high school.
Solanlly, who faced the largest barriers to college, solicited practically everyone she knows to help her get a better financial aid deal at her first-choice school, Fairfield. The school appeared to be her only choice: She had applied to a scholarship program at University of Connecticut for high school valedictorians, but was turned down because of her legal status. Thanks to the state Dream Act, she does qualify for in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, but she cannot access the federal aid that most students rely on to pay for college. She does not qualify for New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program, because she lives in East Haven.
Solanlly enlisted four staffers at HSC—Adeline Marzialo, Cameo Thorne, Chris LeSieur, and Cari Strand—to write letters backing her financial aid appeal, as well as Alan Rosner from the Princeton Prize in Race Relations committee, which had just honored her with a $1,000 award. She solicited the help of Rev. Richard Ryscavage, the director of Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life. Rep. Lemar, who read the Independent’s story about her, also called the school on her behalf. Leslie Navarrete of CT Students for a Dream, which advocates for undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children, also helped Solanlly. Navarrette enlisted the help of state Rep. Juan Candelaria for the cause.
As of last week, Solanlly had not heard back from Fairfield.
“I thought I was not going to be able to go to college,” said Solanlly. “I was so upset.”
Then Friday afternoon, she was down in Princeton, N.J., accepting her race-relations award. She checked her iPhone and saw an email from Fairfield’s admissions office. Based on her appeal, the school reconsidered her financial aid package and decided to give her a full scholarship—$42,920. That will pay for all tuition and fees.
“I was so happy,” Solanlly recalled. “When I got that email, it completely changed my life.”
Ever diligent, Solanlly called the school to make sure the award is renewable for all four years of college. It is.
After verifying the information, she waited until she saw her parents on Sunday, her 19th birthday, to tell them the news.
“My mom started crying,” she said. “I cried, too.”
Solanlly said her mom “prayed so hard” for her daughter to go to college. “My grandma in Colombia was praying every day, too.”
Meanwhile, Chastity had been weighing her college options. Fairfield had given her a financial aid package amounting to $40,000 of the $42,920 per year—an amount that includes student loans and a work-study job. She determined she could not afford to stay on campus. When she sat down with an HSC staff member to examine her college expenses, she determined she would still have to make up about $7,000 per year to pay for transportation and other costs.
Chastity, raised by a single mom in the Quinnipiac Terrace housing projects, said she just couldn’t afford to take on that extra $7,000 per year. At Solanlly’s urging, she launched a last-minute financial aid appeal this week. HSC staff—Strand, Thorne and Riley Gibbs—wrote letters of support.
She heard back via email one day later, on Wednesday. Fairfield agreed to give her an extra $7,000 grant to help her close that gap.
Solanlly was at UNH’s cafeteria, waiting for Chastity after composition class, when she Chastity came running towards her.
“Solanlly!” Chastity screamed.
Chastity said UNH students looked at her because she was making a scene. “You don’t understand,” she recalled thinking.
She announced to Solanlly that they will be going to college together.
Like Solanlly, Chastity made sure to double-check with the admissions office on the details of the grant before announcing it to her family. Wednesday afternoon she was making a phone call to ensure the grant would be renewable for four years. (The answer: It is.)
“I can’t wait to break the news to my mom,” she said, beaming. “I know she’s very proud of me.”
The pair plan to commute to campus. For Solanlly, that would mean taking a city bus from East Haven to New Haven, hopping on a train to Fairfield, then getting a shuttle to campus. Or she might catch a ride with Chastity. Chastity said her mother has offered to lend her the family car.
“I can’t wait to see my mom’s face,” Chastity said. “I know she’s so proud of me.”
Solanlly said growing up in Colombia, “college was just a dream.”
Getting into college is the culmination of years of struggle, she said, after “learning the language, and assimilating.”
“So many people helped me,” she said. She began to compose a mental list of all the thank-you letters she has to write. The list includes all her teachers at HSC, her family, other advocates, and the handful of Independent readers who donated money. “I am very thankful for their support and for believing in me.”
“I give credit to our parents,” added Chastity. “Seeing how hard they work and push us to make a better life—it’s unpayable.”
“Our gift to them,” she said, “will be doing good in school.”