Freedom University: Higher Ed for True Liberation
Host Angela Glover Blackwell with guests Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, Executive Director and Professor of Human Rights, and Freedom U Alumnus Rafael Aragon
For many years, undocumented students who came to the US as minors have been excluded from getting federal funding like grants or loans for college. While 23 states grant undocumented students in-state tuition, three states - Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina - have a form of admissions ban against undocumented students. In 2010, the state banned undocumented students from applying to its top public universities and required them to pay out-of-state at the other public colleges. In response, a group of Georgia professors and undocumented students created an underground freedom school named Freedom University. It offers free college-level courses to the banned students, college application support and human rights leadership training. Many of the students have gone on to earn degrees at colleges and universities across the country.
Radical Imagination host Angela Glover Blackwell talks with Freedom University Executive Director and Professor of Human Rights, Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis. We also hear from Freedom University alumnus Rafael Aragon, who is a full scholarship recipient at Oglethorpe University and now serves as a part-time staff member at Freedom University.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical imagination podcast where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Today we look at an underground school that's defied draconian immigration laws, banning undocumented students from attending their state's top public university.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:31)
All over the country, undocumented students who arrived in the U.S. as minors are excluded from getting federal funding to pay for college, but some states have gone the extra mile to make it even more difficult for them to go to school.
news clip: (00:44)
Currently undocumented immigrants are barred from attending the top five universities in the state and have to pay out of state tuition fees.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:51)
In 2010, Georgia passed laws banning undocumented students from applying to the state's top five public universities and from eligibility for in-state tuition at all public colleges. Today, Georgia continues to have the most discriminatory bans against undocumented students in the country.
news clip: (01:10)
Well, there is one option that's called Freedom University. Freedom University is a volunteer-driven organization that provides rigorous college level instruction to all academically qualified students regardless of their immigration status.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:23)
Professors from Georgia's top universities volunteer at Freedom University to teach college level courses at an undisclosed location. To talk more about freedom university, we're joined by its executive director, Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:40)
Dr. Soltis, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (01:43)
Thank you so much for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:45)
I want to step back for a second and see if you could give us some background on the undocumented community in the state of Georgia.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (01:53)
We can't understand the undocumented community in Georgia without recognizing both the push and the pull factors of immigration to Georgia. Um, and mainly this state's desire for cheap, exploitable labor. One in the construction industry in Atlanta, but also the carpet industry in Dalton, and the poultry industry in Gainesville. And in 1995 bringing us more to the present moment, the undocumented population in Georgia was around 55,000 people. Um, but by 2008, the undocumented population was 425,000 people. And so I always ask people when we do presentations, you know, across the country, what do you think? And Georgia's history led to that six fold increase of the undocumented population. And the answer, of course, is the 1996 Centennial Olympic games in Atlanta.
news clip: (02:47)
There you have it. The announcement is in. Atlanta, Georgia will be the site of the 1996 summer Olympics....
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (02:55)
So leading up to the Olympics, Atlanta was extremely behind schedule in a number of large scale construction projects that were necessary to really host the Olympic games. The local and state government in Georgia was working together with federal agencies to really encourage undocumented labor into Atlanta in order to prepare for the Olympic games.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (03:23)
So most of the thousands of workers who came to these construction jobs were young, married men who eventually, you know, after the Olympics wanted to reunite with their spouses and their young children and brought them to Georgia.
news clip: (03:40)
We begin with immigration. On Monday, Georgia state Senate approved a measure that would ban undocumented immigrant students from all public colleges and universities.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:48)
And you did lead us right up to the next question I want to ask you. In 2010 the Georgia Board of Regents instituted a policy that barred undocumented students from this state's top five public universities. What drove Georgia to adopt this policy?
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (04:04)
The Board of Regents was pressured to form what they called the residency verification committee in order to investigate the issue of undocumented students and the university system of Georgia.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (04:20)
1) that the university system was being swamped by thousands of undocumented students; 2) that Georgia taxpayers were subsidizing the education of undocumented students; and 3) that undocumented students were taking seats away from academically qualified Georgians. So the residency verification committee charged with those three tasks, found out that of the 310,361 students who were enrolled in the university system of Georgia, only 501 were undocumented. If you do your math, that's 0.16 percent or less than two tenths of 1 percent and moreover, they found that 29 students were in the top public universities. That's 0.008% less than 100th of 1 percent of the student population was undocumented. So that concern that the university system was being quote/unquote swamped by thousands of undocumented students was patently false and countless. The committee also found that all 501 undocumented students were paying out-of-state tuition, which the chair even admitted covers more than the cost of instruction, meaning that these undocumented students were doing the reverse. They were subsidizing the education of their documented peers, many of whom they went K-12 with in Georgia public schools.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (05:37)
How did students begin to feel the impact of the new policy besides the obstacles that were already facing them in terms of access to higher education?
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (05:45)
Many of them in high school, we're learning about the bans and we're thinking, what's the point of even trying, so that is why many students, when they come to Freedom U hadn't taken their SAT exams. What was the point? Many of them had given up on trying in school.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (06:04)
It's simply devastating, especially as an educator to see that loss of love of learning.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:16)
How did Freedom University come to exist and with what purpose?
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (06:20)
This happened in October 2010. Undocumented students, some as young as 15, in coalition with immigrant rights activists and Athens at the time, as well as other professors at UGA, and they were meeting this coalition of students, faculty, community members about what they could do to counter these bans. The faculty members were like, do you want us to sign petitions? Do a sit in? Community members wanted to get in trouble and support the students, and the undocumented students said, why don't you all do what you do best and teach us? So the idea of creating a school where they could continue to learn where they could continue their education despite the bans, that's when that idea was born.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:03)
Could you talk more about how Freedom University works, the admission process, the courses that are offered?
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (07:09)
We call it a modern day freedom school, accepts undocumented students who've been banned from equal access to public universities in Georgia. Most of our students are ages 17 through about 25, most of them come from Mexico and Latin America, but we also have students from South Korea. We try to offer a variety of classes that students selected themselves. Students said they really wanted a photography class, they wanted a modern Mexican history class. We also have a lot of classes in the social sciences and humanities. We have a college prep class that helps students navigate the college application process. Last year, 50 percent of our students won full scholarships to college.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:02)
I will tell you as an African American woman who grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s and sixties I was really heartened to read your op-ed that you wrote for the Huffington Post last year where you compared the struggle of undocumented youth in Georgia to that of Black students in the 1960s. Could you talk more about that?
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (08:21)
Sure. I also want to make clear that I am neither undocumented nor Black. Uh, I'm mixed race, Japanese American, everything I know about this issue I've learned from Black people, undocumented people, and through friendships. And so I think this connection and how I can best talk about it is what I experienced. I was introduced to Lonnie King, who is the first chairman of the Atlanta Student Movement. Charles Black, who was the second chairman of the Atlanta Student Movement, and others, and those friendships were there when I started teaching at Freedom University in the fall of 2013. I was teaching a social movements class and I invited them to Freedom U and I remember the magic happened.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (09:08)
The undocumented students in my classroom immediately heard similarities and what it was like to grow up and be banned from the same public universities that once banned Black students.
news clip: (09:19)
"The courage of the Negro students themselves who were willing to face persecution in their hometown to get an education. "
news clip: (09:27)
"Four college freshmen--all Negroes--were refused service at a Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter and the civil rights sit in was born.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (09:39)
I remember that class so vividly. And Lonnie taught us about Horace Ward, the first Black student who tried to integrate the University of Georgia by trying to enroll in 195O to the UGA law school, the effort had failed, but he came back in 1961 as part of the legal team that helped desegregate UGA in 1961. Young people were on the front lines of radical democratic change. Um, this was the context, this new pressure from young people that created a political opportunity for the desegregation of UGA.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:16)
I want to give you an opportunity to connect education in terms of how important it is, uh, to be able to realize the power of democratic participation as well as economic participation.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (10:32)
I think Freedom University represents not just a pathway to higher education for undocumented students in Georgia, but it also represents the home base where undocumented students can learn from one another and they're fighting to be clear for liberation and not just legalization. And this is important because looking historically, there are limits of only fighting for legalization or citizenship. They will still be people of color. They will still be discriminated against if they become citizens. And looking at the example of Black Americans after they were granted citizenship with the 14th amendment, oppression, of course didn't stop. These spaces for the actual practice of freedom are necessary. And I think that is why Freedom University exists today fundamentally, and why it will continue to exist in the future.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:34)
And I think that you wanted to refer to Paulo Freire in that context.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (11:40)
As a teacher in the space of Freedom University, the book that has impacted me the most is Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, who was a Brazilian educator. An editor of the book, Robert Schall, once said in a preface to this book, there is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and the spring about conformity. Or it becomes the practice of freedom. The means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. And that inspires me everyday to come back to Freedom U and remember what it is that we're fighting for.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (12:34)
I find that people who have Radical Imagination and translate it into tangible things that begin to change the world often bring their superpower to everything that they're doing. When you think about it, what's your superpower?
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (12:50)
I hope that my superpower as a teacher is to help students love themselves again.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:04)
Dr. Soltis, thank you for speaking with us.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis: (13:06)
Absolutely. It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:12)
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis is a professor at Freedom University and also serves as its executive director.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:22)
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we hear from an undocumented student who had lost all hope for college until he found Freedom University. Stay with us, more when we come back.
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Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:37)
And we're back. We're now joined by Rafael Aragón. He's a former student at Freedom University who is currently studying psychology at Oglethorpe University in Georgia. Rafael, welcome to radical imagination.
Rafael Aragón: (14:51)
Hey, thank you.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:53)
I'd love for you to start by telling us just a little bit about yourself, what it was like for you growing up and what brought your family to the U.S.?
Rafael Aragón: (15:00)
Of course. Um, I remember not a lot about Mexico. Um, I remember my family and uh, the house we lived in, I don't remember my father in Mexico actually. I just remember him kind of being like a hazy picture I had in my head. And what was strongest as a memory, is just a voice on the other side of a landline. My father came before us, like so many other fathers did. And I think that was one of the big reasons why we wanted to come. We just, we felt kind of disconnected as a family. So my mother sat my two older sisters and I down at our kitchen table, and she asked us, she said, "do you guys want to go? Do you guys want to go up North and be with your dad?" And the three of us said, yeah, you know, and she told us that it was going to be difficult, that we were going to have to learn the language, and the journey itself was going to be dangerous and hard. And obviously as kids we didn't understand just how dangerous things would have been or could have been, but we knew we loved our dad and that we miss them. So we all decided that we wanted to come.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:14)
And do you remember the moment when you reunited with your father?
Rafael Aragón: (16:18)
Oh yeah, vividly. When we got off of the van that transported us from Arizona through so many states to Georgia, it had been a long drive and this was what everything had been building up to. I remember he had bought a car, it was a white Toyoto, I can't remember the year, but it was pretty old with a red like interior, but it was like a carpet interior, and he bought a bouquet of roses for my mom. And he had a few things for us too. The image is stuck in my mind.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:50)
And you've now spent most of your life in Georgia where in 2010 the state adopted a policy barring undocumented students from the top five public universities in the state.
news clip: (17:00)
"Thousands of undocumented children continue to attend Georgia schools, but even if they come top of the class, this state's top colleges aren't an option..."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:09)
When did you first become aware of the legal roadblocks that could keep you from going to college?
Rafael Aragón: (17:15)
I think a junior year of high school is when I understood that I couldn't go to a lot of state funded schools. Uh, but junior year of high school I was looking to apply to like Georgia Tech, UGA, Georgia State, and they were all at the time schools on the banned colleges list. And so I just remember once, twice, and three times I went on their admissions websites and undocumented people need not apply, right. It deterred me from pursuing higher education. I think, I was really disillusioned. I had worked pretty hard throughout high school and finding out that I couldn't go the colleges that I wanted to go to, or in my mind, at the time I was like, I can't go to college at all, you know. I just knew that tuition was like two or three times as much as my peers and I was coming from a low-income background, so college was erased as an option from my list of like available life paths, maybe.
Speaker 6: (18:11)
Rafael, when and how did you hear about Freedom University and what made you want to enroll and be a part of it?
Rafael Aragón: (18:17)
After I had taken like one, two, gap years, I was talking to one of my buddies, you know, he's White, he's a citizen, and he was going to BYU at the time and I was like, "Jack, uh, I want to go to college." You know, I feel like I'm not getting anywhere in life and you know, all these things that we get promised as kids going through the K-12 public education system where it's like, "you can do anything if you, if you persevere and you put work into it and all that." And I was like, I've worked so hard and I don't see, you know, the fruit of my labor. Uh, and I was like, I don't know what to do. And he and I together started looking things up, different kinds of options that I can have, you know, online classes and whatnot. At one point, I even participated in this pathway program that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints But I think it wasn't a good fit for me, and so I moved away from it. I started looking for alternatives and in googling and research, I found this school for undocumented students.
Rafael Aragón: (19:23)
And I was like, Hmmm? And I did a little bit more digging and I saw that they had engaged in like civil disobedience actions and that they were working to try to change policies, and as well as helping undocumented people and that so many of their students had gone on to receive full rides. And I think at the time, now I think it's about 50 percent, but at the time it was one out of every five students at Freedom would leave with a full ride scholarship. And I was like, I'm going to go and I'm going to be that one of those five. And uh, and so I applied and got in and I'm here now.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:59)
And what's it like to be a student at Freedom University? The classroom, the courses, the professors, the other students?
Rafael Aragón: (20:06)
From the perspective of a student, clearly the classes are wonderful, they're engaging, it's interesting. We don't get grades and so everyone's there because we're like dedicated to learning and growing as students. I'll tell you, I've been in college now for like a year and there's no classroom discussions like that anywhere else. But beyond that, it's also like the environment that we create for one another, right? It's very much supportive. It's not so much a competition of who has the best grades or whatnot. Um, it's more so how can we all work together to make sure that we're all better off in the long run. It just creates an environment where we can grow and also learn to advocate for ourselves.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:50)
And what about the support that exists there? Uh, in what ways does it particularly help the students or particularly has helped you?
Rafael Aragón: (20:57)
Specifically at Freedom, you know, it's a lot of younger people and we get to talk about the issues that we face and how difficult it's been and offer each other very concrete and practical support and also emotional support when things are just difficult and we feel like we're overwhelmed.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (21:14)
Some of that has to do with mental well-being?
Rafael Aragón: (21:16)
Oh yeah, definitely. Our community is very much underserved in that regard. And so to us, we recognize very early on that our mental health is usually not in the best place, right. And so we as students asked to be supported in that way and Freedom U started a mental health branch for us students and um, we make sure to take care of each other, not only as friends but also when we need to find access to therapy or professional counseling services. I took advantage of that and it's been really good, like it helps in so many ways.
news clip: (21:56)
If there's a young person here who has grown up here and wants to contribute to this society, wants to maybe start a business, that will create jobs for other folks who are looking for work. That's the right thing to do.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:11)
In 2012, Obama signed the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival program, also known as DACA. This granted 800,000 students across the country, temporary protection from deportation, a federal work permit, and the ability for them to get a driver's license. What did this mean for undocumented students in Georgia?
Rafael Aragón: (22:32)
Right before I joined Freedom University, I was in the middle of applying for DACA. As for DACA itself, I saw it happen and I saw people getting licenses and being able to drive and do a lot of other things and so it seemed like a really good thing. When I first heard about it, I was happy that President Obama had done that.
news clip: (22:49)
"I'm here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:58)
And then in 2017 the Trump Administration announced that it would move forward with repealing DACA, a decision that is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.
Rafael Aragón: (23:08)
We had talked about it with one another. At Freedom specifically, there were so many of us who had DACA and so many fully undocumented students and I think primarily what we told each other is, look, some of us existed for a long time before we got DACA. Our parents have been here for so long before DACA. DACA is not the end all of who we are in our movement and whether we're going to fight or not, right. If we have protections or not, we haven't had protections for so many years. We've been waiting on this Dream and Promise Act for 18/19 years now, and it hasn't happened and we've been okay, right. And we're helping one another, so we try not to worry ourselves too much over it.
news clip: (23:50)
"And know that DACA hangs in the balance, advocates are advising hopefuls to think twice before applying."
news clip: (23:56)
"Immigration agencies will now have their information and especially we're recommending against applying if they have siblings who are also undocumented."
Rafael Aragón: (24:05)
At the time I had kind of taken a critical approach at DACA and kind of began to understand it not so much as like something I should be grateful for, but something that created a exploitable labor force of young undocumented people who have to live in constant fear and checking themselves all the time because it's something that can always be removed, right? And now we have your personal information: where you live, and where you work, and all of that. And something that we spoke about is that DACA is just such a small thing. When you think about the greater issue that there's 11(plus) million undocumented people, so many of them are parents or family members, people that we love and care about, and we're not just here to serve ourselves or fight for ourselves but also for all of our community.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (24:56)
Let's talk about that a little bit because one of the goals of Freedom University, besides helping to fulfill the human right to education is developing leaders in the immigration rights movement for decades to come. Can you give any examples of when and how students have been involved in creating tangible change in this arena?
Rafael Aragón: (25:17)
Yeah, I think one of the things that is highlighted a lot is the policy changes that we helped enact at Emory University. I think it was in 2015?
news clip: (25:31)
Rafael Aragón: (25:35)
It was just before I joined Freedom University, but the students had like a year long campaign where they were pressuring the institution of Emory to change its policies to be more welcoming and more supporting of undocumented students. And they pushed and pushed and rallied together until they made a real change. Right now, Emory has a lot of policies that are very much helpful and productive for undocumented students who are trying to apply.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (26:07)
One of the things that I think is so exciting about Freedom University is that it places things in context, not just the current context, but historical context.
news clip: (26:16)
"Students were arrested -- out of over 300 who are participating in the sit-ins that day, the first of a series of wholesale arrests throughout the South."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (26:25)
How has that impacted you in your understanding of the continuation of the struggle?
Rafael Aragón: (26:29)
It's hard to look at ourselves right now and feel so small sometimes. Um, because we can't vote or because we're primarily coming from low-income communities and we just don't have, you know, the book, the buck, the ballot. Were kept from education, were kept from jobs that pay any respectable wage, and we can't vote, right? So all the tools that you usually need to create change are kept from us.
Rafael Aragón: (27:01)
But looking back at other movements and seeing how institutions have tempted to keep them from exercising their power and how they exercise their power despite the limitations, it sets a blueprint for us on how to move forward. Um, but it also offers inspiration to us as students, as young people who might feel like we're not capable of doing the work that's necessary to create change.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (27:24)
Rafael, you graduated from Freedom University in 2018 and were accepted at Eastern Connecticut State University. More recently you went back to Georgia and got a scholarship to attend Oglethorpe University. What does life look like for you now and what are your hopes for the future?
Rafael Aragón: (27:41)
Um, so right now I'm at Oglethorpe, I'm studying psychology and at the same time I'm interning with Freedom University and just trying to mentor younger students throughout their application process and also prepare for college and what that's like, trying to help them, you know, through the emotional turmoil that exists for us, not just through this process but in the current climate. And then my work, my regular work, I do handyman work here in Atlanta, that kind of takes up most of my time.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:09)
I can tell that you bring a superpower to your life, but what would you say is your superpower?
Rafael Aragón: (28:17)
You know, the phrase is not me, us, right? Another way people illustrate it all the time is the way ants do work, right? How a colony of ants can take over something so gigantic, so if I have a superpower, it's being able to do my part in that big puzzle.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:37)
Rafael, thank you for speaking with us.
Rafael Aragón: (28:40)
Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:48)
Rafael Aragón is a former student at Freedom University. He's currently working on a bachelor's degree in psychology at Oglethorpe University in Georgia.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:59)
How self-destructive it is for a state and a country to marginalize people based on race, ethnicity, or immigration status. Historically, the people who have achieved at the highest levels are those who have been hungry to improve their circumstance through education. Freedom University is pushing back in the most awe inspiring way. Professors volunteer their time. Students soak up knowledge, go on to advance their education, and often return to mentor other young people and step up as community leaders. This is a model of what free college can look like. Maybe even more importantly, it's a model of how we can respond to the ugliest forces in America by nurturing, supporting, and lifting up each other.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (29:42)
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw, Lita Hollowell, and Sam Burnett. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time, and in the meantime, you can find us online at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (30:39)
Next time on Radical Imagination....
news clip: (30:42)
"It's about saying these little boxes that you put me in because of my gender or what my body looks like doesn't work. It's about being able to define yourself."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (30:51)
Re-imagining gender. That's next time on Radical Imagination.
Angela Glover Blackwell, Host.
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink.
The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo.
The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel.
Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira.
Radical Imagination podcast is powered by PolicyLink.