Education

Thanks to donations, Miami Lakes ‘DREAMer’ headed to University of Florida

Miami Lakes Educational Center senior Giancarlo Tejeda, who is undocumented, has raised enough money for the first year of college at the University of Florida. Here he celebrates with classmates after signing his acceptance to UF during ceremony at his high school on Friday, May 1, 2015
Miami Lakes Educational Center senior Giancarlo Tejeda, who is undocumented, has raised enough money for the first year of college at the University of Florida. Here he celebrates with classmates after signing his acceptance to UF during ceremony at his high school on Friday, May 1, 2015 Miami Herald Staff

It started with a confession to a trusted teacher, mounted into a public campaign and has culminated with this: Giancarlo Tejeda is going to the University of Florida

“It’s college; it’s my dream,” the 18-year old said.

With stellar grades and a leadership role at school, Tejeda’s path to college was typical right until acceptance letters began trickling in. That’s when the shy teen was forced to become the face of a movement.

Tejeda is a “DREAMer” — the name given to young undocumented people brought into the country as minors by their parents, who have been afforded temporary protection from deportation.

But the protection only goes so far. Tejeda isn’t eligible for federal grants, financial aid or loans to pay for college. He doesn’t qualify for Florida Bright Futures, and public universities can’t offer him help.

For a family of modest means — his parents gave up teaching in their native Colombia for work in construction and housekeeping in the U.S. — being shut out from financial aid is tantamount to a rejection letter.

Tejeda came to South Florida with his family when he was only 3 years old. A petition for asylum failed, and the family became undocumented immigrants. For years, Tejeda told no one.

“I felt like it wasn’t important in other people’s life, and they couldn’t do anything about it,” Tejeda said.

When he was in middle school, Tejeda watched his older brother turn down acceptance to Northwestern University because the family couldn’t afford the tuition. So he vowed to get into a school with a big endowment that could cover the cost of his higher education.

Tejeda chose to attend Miami Lakes Educational Center, a high school and vocational center two hours away from home by bus. He took advanced classes, became vice president of the science and engineering club and at the same time worked towards industry certifications.

Acceptance letters followed from the University of Florida, New York University and Florida International University. He couldn’t afford any of them.

Tejeda shared his dilemma with a friend at school, Alejandra Mendoza, but begged her not to tell. To Mendoza, the situation began to look hopeless.

“I was getting frustrated and said, ‘We need to figure this out,’” said Mendoza, 18.

In the safety of teacher Neyda Borges’ classroom, Mendoza finally let the secret out. Mendoza only did it because she trusted her teacher.

“If it hadn’t been for the relationship we’ve established here, I probably wouldn’t have told anyone,” Mendoza said.

Borges, language arts department head at the school, helped Tejeda launch a fund-raising campaign on the website GoFundMe. She also contacted the Miami Herald, and Tejeda reluctantly agreed to be featured in a column for the paper.

“I’m a very private person in general,” he said. “It was what I had to do, because more than being uncomfortable in the spotlight, I wanted to go to college.”

More media attention followed, and with it, donations began to pour in. Miami-Dade County schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho pitched in. So did David Lawrence, the former Miami Herald publisher and longtime advocate for kids and education. Tejeda’s own classmates and their families also dug into their pockets to help. The donations have ranged from a few dollars to a $10,000 check that landed Friday in the mail, courtesy of complete strangers.

“We were all stressing about college, but ... it was like all of our problems — are we going to get accepted, are we going to get financial aid? — were pushed aside,” said Salwa Raza, a friend of Tejeda’s.

On Friday, Tejeda sported an orange T-shirt with the University of Florida gator. He joined dozens of his classmates as they signed symbolic college acceptance papers amid balloons and “2015” spelled out in giant numbers covered with glitter.

Bound for schools like Harvard, Emory and Columbia, the students all shared high-fives with principal James Parker — except Tejeda. He grabbed Parker in a hug and then joined the dozen or so UF-bound grads as they all extended their arms and clapped down like a gator’s chomp.

“We’re so excited about him,” Parker said. “It’s been a long journey.”

Tejeda now has about $24,000 to get him started on his college career — not quite enough to cover the cost of four years of studying away from home.

“I never expected the support that I got,” he said. “I feel blessed.”

Tejeda will chase after scholarships. And he is graduating from high school with certifications in computer networking, so he can get a good-paying job to help pay for tuition if he has to.

Tejeda wants to study biomedical engineering, and to get a joint medical degree and PhD so he can eventually go into neurological research to help people like his grandmother, who has Alzheimers.

He also wants to continue to be the face for young people in legal limbo.

“We need immigration reform. We need to have healthcare,” he said. “This is part of a movement that needs to happen.”

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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