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Campus Borders: Forcing Good Students Underground is a Lose, Lose for Higher Education in Georgia

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Yovany Díaz is not your typical college student. He swam across the Río Grande when he was eight to reach America, worked as a busboy after school and learned English in a frightened blaze at a school in Johns Creek, Georgia where he excelled in all his classes.

But his ambition of attending college died last year when the regents of the University of Georgia barred undocumented students from enrolling in the five top campuses, even if they live and pay taxes here.

With no other option, Yovany turned to an unconventional and semi-underground place of learning: Freedom University, an organization that places Georgia's talented but unwanted students in universities in other states.

The "faculty" - mainly dissent professors from UGA - train undocumented students to take the SAT, offer them help with the college application process and guide them through the complexities of grant writing.

At the end of its first year, Freedom University successfully placed six students at private universities in states such as Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina with full funding. Hampshire College has publically announced a fellowship for undocumented students.

That organizations like Freedom even have to exist is a shame and Georgia can correct the error by reaffirming a commitment to educating all of its people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or background.

This must be said: the Regents let themselves be swayed by out-of-control xenophobia when they made their decision. The stated rationale for the ban was that Georgia's universities were being crowded with undocumented students, but that proved to be a laughable phantom. At the time of the ban, only four students without proper papers could be found on the UGA rolls, a tiny impact on enrollment. They were also paying "international student rates," bringing wealth to the university.

While UGA is the only university that has barred undocumented students from enrolling, other public universities in states across the nation that do not give undocumented students access to instate tuition rates have effectively "banned" undocumented students when they expect them to pay international student rates.

College is a time for students to broaden their horizons and come into contact with a wide array of people whose life experiences are different from their own. As a public institution of higher learning, the University of Georgia is supposed to look like the residents of Georgia. And in the past decade the state has become home to a rapidly growing migrant agricultural workforce that lives mostly in the shadows.

A top university like UGA is supposed to be a greenhouse for new ideas, but it only marginalizes these communities by banning their children from campus and denying them friendships and shared experiences with the future leaders of the state.

It is not a radical idea to suppose that the average UGA student could learn quite a bit from someone like Yovany Díaz, who they would not otherwise have a chance to meet. And the reverse is certainly true as well.

A final irony: The University of Georgia instituted this ban while it was celebrating a half-century of desegregation. In 1961, a U.S. District Court ordered the admission of the first African American woman, CharlayneHunter-Gault, after she was turned away because of the color of her skin. Hunter-Gault later became a respected journalist, winning two Peabody Awards. Amid fanfare and accolades, she donated her papers to the university's library.

Now that her battle is safely in the past, Hunter-Gault can be acclaimed as a hero by UGA. But local students like Yovany - Georgians through and through, no matter what their passport says -- are still barred at the door and will likely be forced to take their hard work and intelligence elsewhere.

The University of Georgia is a better place today because it desegregated fifty years ago. It will be a better place tomorrow if the ban on undocumented students is lifted today. Freedom University is a wonderful idea for the moment, but let's try to eliminate the unfortunate reason for its existence.

A version of this originally appeared in the Ledger-Enquirer: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2012/10/07/2228911/campus-borders.html