Publication Date

September 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

From the President


My education as an academic outsider began early. Attending high school in the Florida Panhandle, this fisherman’s daughter took a US history test that came with a small scholarship for the top-scoring senior. My victory, however, proved short-lived, as it turned out I was ineligible. To my surprise, the scholarship’s sponsor (the United Daughters of the Confederacy) required that the winner be a direct descendant of a Confederate soldier or politician. This criterion of who would win (certainly not an African American, Latino, Asian, or naval-base transplant) spoke volumes about access and opportunity in a southern beach community almost three decades after  the historic Brown decision. Worsening the sting, a year earlier my father had threatened to sue the local school board when the honors English teacher refused to admit me into her class. In my presence, she advised my father that I needed to learn to accept my “limitations,” adding, “Vicki is not as smart as she thinks she is.” When pressed, she revealed that, to her knowledge, she had never taught a minority student in honors English. That admission landed me in a front-and-center desk in full view of her sour visage during my senior year.

Such educational gatekeeping, unfortunately, remains with us 61 years after Brown and over 30 years after Plyler v. Doe (1982), a Supreme Court decision that guaranteed access to K–12 public schools for all children, regardless of citizenship. The AHA remains committed to both the letter and the spirit of these decisions, both of which rest on the principle of educational equity. The state of Georgia, however, wobbles. Since the Association is meeting in Georgia next January, and Georgia prides itself on treating visitors well, we will remind our hosts of their obligations. The AHA Council has approved a letter to the University System of the Georgia Board of Regents about its policy barring high-achieving students from its top universities based solely on their immigration status.

According to section 4.1.6 of the University System of the Georgia Board of Regents Policy Manual: “A person who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible for admission to any University System institution which, for the two most recent academic years, did not admit all academically qualified applicants (except for cases in which applicants were rejected for non-academic reasons).” Enacted in 2010, this criterion refers to Georgia’s top five public universities, including the University of Georgia, Georgia State, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. This policy, along with Title 20 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, which denies in-state tuition for childhood arrivals who qualify for federal deferred status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA), effectively creates a tiered system that promotes educational segregation. Indeed, Georgia is the only state in the nation that denies both in-state tuition and enrollment in public research institutions for DACA students, commonly known as DREAMers. The impact of this legislation denies equal access and opportunity to an estimated 19,000 young Americans who graduated from Georgia high schools.1

According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, eligibility for deferred action includes the following: (1) long-term, continuous residence in the United States at least since July 2007; (2) a birth date after June 15, 1981; (3) arrival before one’s 16th birthday; (4) a high school education (or GED); (5) either an honorable discharge from a branch of the US military or school enrollment; and (6) no felony or multiple misdemeanor convictions.2 DACA applicants hail from 192 countries. About three-quarters are from Mexico, 10 percent from Central America, 7 percent from South America, and 4 percent from Asia; the remaining 4 percent represent other regions.3

Many legislators across the United States have recognized the bonds of incorporation—spatial, economic, and social—that have occurred among childhood arrivals. As early as 2004, Massachusetts legislator Kevin Murphy referred to them as “truly citizens,” eight years before President Barack Obama referred to DREAMers as “Americans . . . in every single way but one: on paper.”4 These hardworking, ambitious young Americans have had no control over that status, just as their African American predecessors—also excluded from sectors of the state university system—had no control over their segregation. They deserve the chance to acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them—and our society—to thrive.

Like other exclusionary measures implemented by such states as Arizona and Alabama, section 4.1.6 in the Georgia Regents’ Policy Manual harks back to nativist-inflected policies that were prevalent over a century ago, when politicians, policy makers, educators, and public health officials determined and defined “who were fit to be citizens.”5 In response, four professors at the University of Georgia, including historians Bethany Moreton and Pamela Voekel, revived the model of the 1960s Freedom Schools, establishing Freedom University in 2011. As founding faculty Lorgia García-Peña explained, “[We had] . . . no money, no building or supplies, we had nothing but our human resources and we had ganas.”6 Beginning in Athens and since 2013 in Atlanta, volunteer core faculty and a coterie of affiliates have offered challenging weekend college-level courses to undocumented students at undisclosed venues. Courses have included debate, human rights, music composition, Mexican history and politics, and college admission preparation (including SAT/ACT tutoring). In one learning block, students found their literature course taught by none other than Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz.7

The African American civil rights movement is more than a source of inspiration, as several prominent long-time activists participate in this educational effort, including Atlanta NAACP leader Charles A. Black, one of four members of Freedom’s board of directors. Moreover, peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience powerfully link the present to the past and generate public awareness beyond the state. As legendary civil rights leader and US representative John Lewis explained: “When you take on the immigrant population, you’re taking on all of us. During the Freedom Rides, we were saying, in effect, you arrest one of us, you’re going to arrest all of us. . . . I see parallels between then and now.” He is not alone. Staughton Lynd, director of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, has served on Freedom University’s advisory board along with such distinguished historians as Barbara Ransby, Robin D. G. Kelley, Glenda Gilmore, Greg Grandin, Laura Briggs, Stephen Pitti, George Sánchez, and Steven Stern (to name a few).8

Beyond the classroom, Freedom University staff and volunteers have built an academic Underground Railroad or pipeline, arranging college tours as well as scholarships. Twenty percent of Freedom alumni have earned full merit packages to attend universities such as Dartmouth and Syracuse. Freedom University has also developed partnerships with Berea College (the first southern interracial institution for higher education) and Tougaloo, a historically black college. After a three-year campaign by students at Emory University and Freedom, Emory has announced that “need-based aid” will be available to undocumented students beginning this fall. Given that many DREAMers have familial obligations that prevent them from leaving the state, this move by Emory officials offers a new, highly valued avenue for opportunity.

At the AHA annual meeting in Atlanta this coming January, you will have the occasion to learn more about Freedom University. On Friday, January 8 (8:30–10:30 a.m.), its executive director, Laura Emiko Soltis; Charles A. Black, former chair of the Atlanta Student Movement; and current student Melissa Rivas-Triana will anchor the presidential panel “Students on the Front Lines: The Fight to Desegregate Public Higher Education in Georgia from the 1960s Atlanta Student Movement to the Undocumented Student Movement Today.” Nationally, DREAMers are raising their voices, calling for access and opportunity as they emerge from out of the shadows. Documentary films, YouTube posts, and even a major motion picture, Spare Parts, provide a glimpse into the resilience, creativity, and intelligence of these young Americans, many of whom have no memory of life anywhere else. “This is my home. This is the land that nurtures my dreams,” declared Keish Kim, a Freedom student.9

Colleagues in the AHA have helped turn dreams into reality through the gift of mentorship, demonstrating the ways in which historians across fields and types of employment can serve multiple publics. With courage, commitment, and corazón, Freedom University’s faculty volunteers extend their reach in the service of access and opportunity.

Vicki L. Ruiz is president of the American Historical Association.


1.Angela M. Banks, “Members Only: Undocumented Students & In-State Tuition,” Brigham Young University Law Review 1425 (2014). “Determination of In-state Resident Status of Students for Tuition or Fees,” O.C.G.A. § 20-3-66 (2011). Jon Richard, “In the Senate, an Emotional Hearing over In-state Tuition for Dreamers,” Peach Pundit, February 11, 2015. “Freedom University” website,".

2. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “I Am a Young Person Who Arrived in the United States as a Child (Childhood Arrival),” brochure, August 3, 2012.

3. Audrey Singer and Nicole Prchal Svajleka, “Immigration Facts: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA),” Brookings Institution, August 14, 2013,

4. “Freedom University”; Banks, “Members Only”; “Remarks by the President on Immigration,” June 15, 2012,

5. See Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

6. “Freedom University”; Thelma Gutiérrez and Traci Tamura, “Freedom University: Studying in Secret,” CNN Schools of Thought, December 1, 2011, Ganas means desire.

7. “Freedom University”; Kate Brumback, “Freedom University: Georgia Profs Offer Course to Undocumented Immigrants,” Huffington Post, October 25, 2011, While all four founders of Freedom University have left the state (two are now at Ivy League institutions), they continue to participate in the alternative school’s mission and curriculum.

8. “Freedom University”; Stephen Pitti, “The Spirit of Selma: Nine Students Arrested in Georgia for Protesting Discriminatory Education Policies,” Huffington Post, updated March 15, 2015,; Jeff Biggers, “And Climate Justice/Immigrant Rights for All: Georgia Students Take Lead in Uniting Movements,” Huffington Post, updated January 13, 2013, Quote is from Biggers, “And Climate Justice.”

9. Ingrid Cruz, “Undocumented, Unafraid, and Back to School,” Jackson Free Press, July 24, 2013,; Lydia O’Neal, “Emory to Offer Financial Aid to Undocumented Students,” Emory Wheel, April 2, 2015,; quote is from“Studying in Secret.” Documentaries on DREAMers include Admissions, Papers: The Movie, Risers and This (Illegal) American Life. Los Angeles–based filmmaker Anayansi Prado is currently working on a documentary about Freedom University.


In the print edition, this column omitted the name of one of the founders of Freedom University: Betina Kaplan, associate professor of Spanish at the University of Georgia.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.