As so many of these children often do, Giancarlo Tejeda kept his family’s immigration status a secret.
He didn’t confide in favorite teachers or close classmates, didn’t talk about his parents’ struggles — teachers in Colombia who now earned a modest living working in Miami’s underground economy, he in construction and she in housekeeping, sacrificing their professions for the sake of their children’s future.
“I knew I had to protect them and keep quiet and blend in,” the 18-year-old senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center tells me. “And I wanted to be like all the other students. I didn’t want to be different.”
As shy as he’s intellectually gifted, Giancarlo is talking now only because the secret — that he was brought to this country when he was 3 years old and that his family lost a bid for asylum — is threatening to derail his life-long dream.
“College, going to college is my dream,” he says.
He wants to study biomedical engineering and he has been working hard all of his school life to make the leap to college, taking a full load of AP-level classes at the same time he works on a second vocational track at the school in information technology.
He’s vice president of MLEC’s science and engineering club; the group’s bionic-hand project came in third place in a recent regional competition.
He’s graduating with top honors, top scores and has been accepted at New York University and the University of Florida. But because of his legal standing — a DREAMer with deferred action status — he’s not eligible for federal grants, financial aid or even loans.
“Unless he finds a way to pay for tuition, books, and room and board, he may not be able to go to college at all,” laments his literature teacher, Neyda Borges. “I have tried to reach out to UF and NYU, but have not been able to find him much help . … It is really late in the year and kids have to accept or decline their admission offers by May 1, and most scholarships and grants have already been awarded.”
His teacher has helped Giancarlo set up a crowd-funding initiative at gofund.me/rb6p5dtg.
At NYU, a full year of undergraduate tuition and living expenses could come to $60,000 a year. But thanks to the Florida Legislature, which last year fixed a wrong and waived out-of-state tuition fees for DREAM kids like Giancarlo, he can get in-state tuition rates at UF. The cost of undergraduate tuition and campus living expenses for an incoming freshman, according to the university, will be $20,590 a year.
“NYU is my first choice, but I would be grateful to be able to go to any college, even FIU, at this moment,” he says.
It will take a village to overcome the financial obstacles and send Giancarlo to college in time to be part of the 2015 freshman class. But if any place in America can help him, I’m betting that it is the generous people of South Florida.
Giancarlo deserves the opportunity.
“I’ve been asking God for help,” says his mother, Isabel Prada. “He has always been good, intelligent, enthusiastic, a collaborator.”
For this smart kid who loves science, robotics and taught himself to play bass and guitar, and does so at his church, it wasn’t hard to hide the wounds and scars left by the perpetual state of insecurity that’s part of living anonymously in the shadows of a well-to-do community.
And so he kept quiet for far too long, perfecting his English and enhancing his knowledge of science and history through PBS documentaries. “My parents couldn’t afford cable,” he says, “and my father and I loved watching PBS documentaries and then talking about them.”
Giancarlo’s only miscalculation was that he thought that if he could get into an Ivy League school, acceptance would come with a scholarship. And so, he didn’t ask anyone for help with financial matters, didn’t reveal his secret until now.
It was easy in Miami, home to so many children from elsewhere, to be one more face, and to hide behind the mask of his scholarly success.
We shouldn’t, however, let the silence derail the dreams of a worthy young man.