The University of Connecticut has decided to reconsider its practice of excluding undocumented students from scholarships after learning the story of a New Haven valedictorian who had the courage to speak out.
The student, Solanlly Canas, an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, spoke out this year in stories in the Independent about her frustrating position: As the valedictorian of High School in the Community (HSC), she had the grades to win a special scholarship to attend the University of Connecticut. But as an undocumented immigrant, she was barred from receiving the money.
Solanlly, who’s 19, didn’t end up going to UConn. But her advocacy, combined with that of a New Haven state legislator, has prompted the university to reconsider its practice.
Solanlly [pronounced so•LON•jee] and the legislator, state Rep. Roland Lemar, shared that news Thursday night at HSC’s graduation ceremony in Wooster Square Park. Sollanly delivered a valedictory address with her friend Chastity Berrios, HSC’s other top senior. Lemar gave the keynote speech for the ceremony, which marked a capstone of not just academic careers but a social justice mission.
Lemar got involved after reading a story in the Independent in April about Solanlly and Chastity. At the time, both students were proving their resilience and hard work by taking challenging college courses at the University of New Haven. Solanlly had been accepted to UNH, Fairfield University, Quinnipiac University, and UConn. She broke down in tears, however, when she revealed that she could not afford to attend any of those schools. Because she’s undocumented, she does not qualify for the federal financial aid that most kids rely on. And because she lives in East Haven, she does not qualify for New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program.
Lemar read the story and started making calls. He expressed outrage that UConn would exclude high-performing kids from a scholarship program because of their legal status. Solanlly is part of a group of “Dreamers,” kids who were brought to the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own. There are an estimated 11,000 to 20,000 Dreamers in Connecticut and 1.76 million nationwide. The group has been swiftly gaining rights in the state and country: First the state passed a law allowing them to access in-state tuition rates; then President Obama extended them a two-year reprieve from deportation, allowing them to get drivers licenses and work permits.
Lemar focused his attention on the UConn Presidential Scholars Award, which offers scholarships of 75 percent tuition to high school valedictorians and salutatorians across the state. He said Solanlly was the first student to speak out about being rejected from the program due to her immigration status.
“As a state, we should do everything possible to keep these top-performers inside our state, where they’ll grow and prosper,” Lemar argued.
After repeated phone calls to top university officials, Lemar convinced UConn to find scholarship money for Solanlly. She didn’t end up going there, because Lemar and others also convinced Fairfield University, her top choice, to provide her a full scholarship. (He helped Chastity get more financial aid, enabling her to go there, too.)
Through her tireless self-advocacy, Solanlly also secured private donations to pay for her freshman year room and board, she announced Thursday. Her main financial supporter, who was present Thursday, requested anonymity.
Though she won’t be attending UConn, Solanlly has made an impact there.
“Solanlly was the first example they had had” of an undocumented student excluded from the Presidential Scholars Award, Lemar said. “Because of her, they’re going to change their policy.”
Lemar said he has a firm commitment from UConn that the school will expand its Presidential Scholars Award to include undocumented kids.
“Her situation could impact dozens of students,” he said.
Reached Friday, UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz stopped short of making a full commitment. She said the university is “reconsidering” its practice and “aims” to extend scholarships to undocumented kids, within the boundaries of federal law.
Reitz said UConn is prohibited by law from discussing Solanlly’s particular situation.
She said UConn “hasn’t had a policy on scholarships for undocumented students in the past.” In the past, UConn has grouped undocumented students together with international students, who are not eligible for scholarships, she said.
“However, we’ve been in the process of evaluating our practice in this area with the guidance of the university’s and state’s legal experts to determine if a policy is needed moving forward. We’re hoping to finalize the review by the start of the 2013-14 academic year,” she wrote in an email.
“UConn’s aim is to appropriately recognize talented students – regardless of their immigration status – for their accomplishments through admissions and scholarships, as long as we do so within the bounds of the law,” Reitz said.
At Thursday’s graduation ceremony, HSC magnet coordinator Cari Strand thanked Lemar for going “above and beyond the call of duty” to help kids at HSC, as well as others in years to come.
Lemar, in turn, credited Solanlly: “Her willingness to speak out about her situation and be an advocate for herself in a way that nobody else had allowed us to recognize a flaw in UConn’s policy. ... She can be proud of her achievements academically, but also her ability to change state policy.”
Solanlly said she was “surprised” to learn from Lemar about UConn’s apparent change of heart.
“It’s something really good,” she said. “Even though I’m not going to UConn, it means that other students like me who are going through the same struggles that I did will have the opportunity to go to college.”
She said in addition to Lemar, Connecticut Students for a Dream also lobbied UConn on her behalf.
The news marks a milestone in a difficult journey out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
“It took a while before I even told close friends that I was undocumented,” Solanlly said. She went public with her status in an interview with the Independent in January.
“I’m really happy I did that,” she said. “It’s a good thing that I did it, and that many other students are coming out of the shadows, because we need to make a change. We can’t do anything unless we come out and speak out for ourselves.”
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• “I Sat Down & I Grew Up”
• Jury Sentences Jayla To Her Own Punishment
• Teachers Clash With Union Prez Over Turnaround
• 91-39 Blowout Comes With A Lesson For Victors
• New Haven Rallies For Solanlly & Chastity
• Social Promotion Vow Put To The Test
• HSC Heads To Capitol For New Diplomas
• She Awoke To A New Life—& A New Mission
• High School Of The Future Debuts, Briefly
• Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
• Nikita Makes It Home
• 15 Seniors Head To College Early
• No More “B And A Smile”
• Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
• Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
• School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”