When Fort Mill businessman Ric Elias unveiled his Golden Door Scholars program for undocumented immigrant students last fall, he expected his $1 million donation to last at least three years.
But Elias was so impressed with the caliber of students who sought help getting into college that every dollar was given away within a week.
This fall, he has decided to give more money to the cause, but with a catch aimed at awarding more scholarships. For every dollar donors give to Golden Door, he will match it up to $1 million.
The money will go to high-performing students in the Carolinas who are undocumented because they were brought to the country illegally by their parents. As such, the students aren’t eligible for state financial aid or in-state tuition rates in North Carolina.
It’s estimated the state has 35,000 undocumented students throughout its primary and secondary school systems. The size of that population convinced Elias this year to limit the applications to only students in the two Carolinas.
Applications for the scholarships are being taken through Nov. 1.
Elias is confident the donations will come, in part because he received $500,000 in unsolicited donations last year from others like himself who view undocumented students as innocent victims of the system.
And those donations were made despite the fact that Golden Door had not yet been granted nonprofit status.
Elias, CEO of the Fort Mill-based Red Ventures Internet marketing firm, said he had hoped the program would be one of the country’s shortest lived charities, thanks to immigration reform. However, he has become increasingly pessimistic that Congress will enact reform any time soon.
Elias says he will give scholarships this year whether or not anyone donates to the program. He’s just hoping that he can help more kids than last year.
He’s expecting a couple of thousand applications, including some from students who were turned down last year due to lack of money.
“We checked behind on some of those we couldn’t help and all are out of the mainstream. … They were working minimum wages jobs,” Elias said.
“What we learned last year is that the need for exceptional students is bigger than we thought. Time is of the essence. These kids’ lives can’t wait for the government to make a decision on immigration reform.”
Among those who gave money last year was former state Sen. Marshall Rauch of Gastonia, the founder of Rauch Industries. Rauch said he believes the program will change lives for decades to come and make the country stronger for it.
“This program is opening the world up to kids who are talented, but through no fault of their own aren’t given an opportunity to achieve their potential,” Rauch said.
“I have high hopes for these kids, who are exceptional. They have proven it in K-12, and most never dreamed they’d get into college. They anticipated a future as a dishwasher or laborer. Golden Door will make them doctors and leaders.”
The program received 500 applications in its first year, and the 13 recipients had an average GPA of 4.47. They included teens who maintained near-perfect grades while leading athletic teams, tutoring fellow students, volunteering at charities and raising siblings for parents working multiple jobs. One spoke three languages.
Among those who have applied this year is undocumented student Ubaldo Franco, 18, of Charlotte. He graduated from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology this year sixth in his class with a GPA of 4.94.
Franco’s dream is to attend UNC Chapel Hill to pursue a career in computer science, but he said will cost more than $45,000 for one year due to his status. He is currently taking classes at Johnson C. Smith University, which he says does not take into account his legal status.
“My dad is in construction and my mom works at a restaurant and neither went to college,” he said. “They work hard and a lot of hours. They are pushing me to something higher, because they came from a small rural town and they want me to have a better life.”
A scholarship through Golden Door covers all four years of school, thanks to a partnership worked out with local schools like Davidson, Wake Forest, Elon, Furman and High Point University. All are offering tuition breaks for the students, who are selected by a volunteer committee created by Golden Door.
Each student who graduates through the scholarship program is expected to “pay it forward” by helping to cover the cost of other undocumented students
Elias says the program will be working to recruit donors who can pay for all or part of a single student’s education, or even just the books needed for the semester.
“I’m optimistic. I think anyone who takes time to understand this issue will see how un-American it is to deny these kids an education,” Elias said.