Keny wants to be a doctor, but he cant. Juan wants to be a chemical engineer, but he cant. Jackie wants to be an immigration lawyer, but she cant. And North Carolina is the worse for it.
These young people and others I met at a recent protest march are undocumented immigrants who cant afford college because theyre considered foreigners even though they grew up here. Their plea, voiced as we marched through Chapel Hill and Durham and on to the N.C. Department of Justice in Raleigh, is for in-state tuition. I joined them because I believe were losing some of our best students by pushing them beyond the borders weve built here in our home state. Most have lived in the state for years, many of them since they were 1 or 2 years old and, despite their doing well in public schools here, we treat them as outsiders.
Some wore red or black graduation caps and gowns from their high school commencements. They walked in the rain, braving even a tornado warning and winds that brought down trees, and they chanted, Up, up with education; down, down with segregation! Who could disagree? Many drivers passing by honked their horns and gave thumbs-up approval. Only one man driving by gave us a thumbs-down. He looked angry at the whole world. Maybe he thought these students were freeloading on the system.
Do you think the ones honking really know what theyre supporting? a student asked me as we chanted One State, One Rate. I looked over the signs. One read In-state Tuition. Another called on Attorney General Roy Cooper to release educational dreams from captivity. I answered: I think the drivers are probably just glad to see young people participating in any democratic act. With so much complacency and crime, seeing youths out braving rainstorms with words like education and dreams on signs had to represent hope for most any American.
The marchers were so fresh-faced and hopeful. They cheered every honk and were buoyed so much a leader told the others to slow down. There was hope in their gait.
Paper signs began to deteriorate, but they held them high and marched on.
For this journey, they carried a mock casket representing the death of their dreams. Arriving at the Department of Justice, the youths stood on the front steps and placed the casket down in front of them. I couldnt help but notice above them, carved into the lintel of the building, the word Education. I didnt know how that word came to be there, but how poignant to see it looming above a group of optimistic youths, soaking in the rain, standing by a coffin said to hold their dead ambitions.
I clapped and cried as they told their stories. I got angry, too. One leader named Viridiana took the microphone at the end and said, Thank you for applauding, but this is also a funeral. You dont usually clap at funerals.
In a country where we complain that our youths take education for granted, I witnessed a cadre of teenagers spend their Saturday on a hard walk in the rain, pleading only for in-state tuition for those who are the recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). A student from Maine or Illinois could move here and get the rate in a year. A student who came here 17 years ago as a toddler carried by his mother is ineligible.
Like all of us whove grown up here, the youths had all been told that if one worked hard, this country provided opportunities. The coffin they carried said otherwise.
These are young people willing to work several jobs to go to college to do jobs in service to all of us, if society would only meet them halfway. They werent asking for a handout. After all, their families have been paying taxes here for years. They simply want to pay the same rate as their peers in the only state they have ever known.
With hard work they can probably afford the in-state rate, but five times that much for out-of-state tuition is beyond reach.
To prohibit them from an education theyre willing to walk and fight for not only kills their dreams but also wounds our collective future. As a former recipient of financial aid and an educator, I find that sickening. Ive joined the dreamers for the long haul.
Charles D. Thompson Jr., Ph.D., is professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology and curriculum director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.