Solanlly’s Tale Sways UConn

Melissa Bailey PhotoThe 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.

Contributed PhotoLemar 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”

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posted by: IloveMYcity203 on June 21, 2013  5:25pm

Congratulations! She deserves it;Both of them deserve it. I know people will say this and that about illegal immigrants, and I agree;however, we have to look at the facts: They were brought here out of their control and these are children. I would hope to believe that anyone with a heart can clearly see that the correct choice was made for that young girl. [excuse any typos]

posted by: Brutus2011 on June 21, 2013  7:39pm

I agree, congratulations!

There are a lot of kids here in New Haven that could succeed if we would put the right personnel with those kids at risk for any number of reasons.

I am glad to see HSC and its graduates portrayed in a positive light.

posted by: amay47 on June 24, 2013  1:59pm

Congratulations, Roland.  I agree with you that the young lady deserves most of the credit for getting UConn to reconsider its scholarship policies, but it certainly helped to have a state legislature fighting for change as well.  Too bad I moved outside your district last year;  I would have loved to support you next year :)