In a rare move for U.S. higher education, Rutgers University has awarded a full scholarship to an undocumented immigrant, allowing him to finish his last two years of college and receive his bachelor’s degree.
Rutgers University-Newark has granted Giancarlo Tello, a 24-year-old political science major who came from Peru with his parents when he was just 6, a two-year scholarship that amounts to about $22,000.
University officials say they heard Tello speak at a community event in Newark, New Jersey and were amazed by his intelligence and leadership abilities. Since Tello is undocumented, and therefore ineligible for public financial aid programs, officials decided they would offer him a scholarship to help him cover the cost of his last two years.
Since the first grade I’ve been saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school every single day. I played football in middle school, went to my proms. I grew up watching 'Ninja Turtles' and trading 'Pokemon' cards.
- Giancarlo Tello, undocumented student and activist
“You think about what qualities you want to see in a young person,” said Peter Englot, the vice chancellor at Rutgers-Newark, “who comes out of college having gone in to learn seriously and come out wanting to make a difference in the world. He very clearly has that.”
Tello has been one of the leading activists in New Jersey pushing for changes in laws that would allow undocumented students to attend public colleges at the same tuition rates as other state residents.
Tello is campaign manager for the New Jersey Tuition Equity for Dreamers Coalition, whose members lobbied for an in-state tuition bill that passed last year and that Gov. Chris Christie held a signing ceremony for in January.
He completed his associate’s degree program at Bergen Community College, and has taken a couple of courses at Rutgers University – one per semester, because of the prohibitive cost for out-of-state students, the category that he was classified under because of his immigration status.
“It costs $2,700 per class,” he said.
In-state undergraduates at Rutgers University, a public institution, pay $13,499 a year in tuition and fees; out-of-state students pay $27,523.
Tello worked several jobs to get through community college and to be able to pay for his Rutgers classes. He’s tutored senior citizens in computers, he’s taught tennis, and done an assortment of other work, he said.
The notorious backlog of immigration cases in the United States led him to age out of the process of getting his paperwork, he said.
His grandparents, who are U.S. citizens, petitioned for his parents and for Giancarlo. But the process took so long that he turned 21 while it was still underway, and he became ineligible.
Now, his family has legal status, but he does not. Tello does have a waiver from deportation under an Obama administration initiative from 2012 that allows undocumented immigrants who came as minors to avoid removal for two years. During that time, they may get work permits and driver’s licenses.
Tello, who maintains a 3.5 GPA, sees the United States as home. It is the country, he says, where he came of age.
“Since the first grade I’ve been saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school every single day,” Tello said. “I played football in middle school, went to my proms. I grew up watching 'Ninja Turtles' and trading 'Pokemon' cards.”
Somehow, while working to pay tuition and help his parents, and keeping a strong grade point average, Tello also has been a tireless advocate for changes for the college tuition system for everyone.
Tello says New Jersey has one of the highest tuition rates in the country, about 50 percent higher than other states.
“College should be a right, not a privilege,” Tello said.
He developed a taste for activism when he joined the movement of youths who were undocumented and pushing for laws that would allow them a path to legalize their status.
Their argument was that they were here illegally through no fault of their own, that they were raised in this country and identified as American.
Tello made trips to state capitals and to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers, take part in rallies and press conferences. In New Jersey, he made waves, even making headlines when he took on Christie, who for years had been opposed to an in-state tuition measure, at a few public events.
“I want to work on policy issues,” he said of his hope for the future. “I want to work on progressive legislation at the local level. On immigration, I can bring the viewpoint of someone who is undocumented. It’s important to have a seat at the table when decisions are being made.”
But beyond immigration, Tello said he also strives to improve conditions for young people in general.
“Our generation, millennials, needs to have more of a voice in everything that’s happening now that’s going to affect us,” he said. “There are the issues of charter schools, higher education. Tuition is skyrocketing, especially in New Jersey.”
For his part, Englot is not surprised.
“You realize this is a kid who not only can make a difference in the world but he wants to make a difference,” he said. “For him, the sky is the limit, he’s got such potential.”
Englot said Tello’s scholarship is the first step in a larger effort the university is undertaking to raise private funds for aid for undocumented students.
Englot said the university makes a point of reaching out to under-served communities to make college accessible to youths in those populations.
Making college more accessible to undocumented immigrants is controversial. Opponents say that to give breaks to people who are here illegally, even if because of decisions their parents made, is to reward law-breakers.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Students, told The Record in Northern Jersey that the move by Rutgers raises questions about fairness.
“Every illegal immigrant who attends Rutgers University and gets a discount is taking something from an American student,” Krikorian told the newspaper.
Englot responds that lending a helping hand to undocumented youths does not take away help from other students.
“As we seek to build resources, this is not a zero-sum game,” Englot said, “a dollar spent here [does not translate into] a dollar not spent somewhere else.”
“Our intention is to raise money for kids from all different kinds of backgrounds,” he said. “It’s the challenge for the nation, to figure out how can we do that. We’re trying to grow a bigger pie.”
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