Opening Doors

Yesterday I drove to Manhattan, Kansas, for the graduation of the Kansas State University School of Architecture, Planning, and Design. It was a road trip several years in the making, and I had the help of thousands of people to make it there.

At around 11:15AM on Saturday, May 16, 2009, the first Kansas student to enroll in a four-year institution of higher education under the provisions of the state’s instate tuition law, designed to facilitate access to college for undocumented immigrants, received her Master of Architecture degree. During my four+ hours of driving and the two hours I sat through the ceremony, my mind was filled with memories of the struggle for that legislation and also with questions about what the future holds and what our next steps should be. Every word uttered by the commencement speakers held special meaning for me, as I contemplated A.’s (name withheld for her privacy) particular journey across that stage.

Obviously I can’t know the private struggles of the other students who received their degree, but I do know much of hers. And so, when the speaker reminded students to thank their families for all of their support, I thought of her parents working 16-hour days in a restaurant that never paid them even minimum wage. When he encouraged students to take risks, I thought of how she stood up in front of the Kansas Legislature and told them that she was giving them a chance to do the right thing. When he admonished students to have commitment, I thought about how, the entire first year of high school, she had to translate her homework, with her dictionary, from English to Spanish to complete it and then translate it back to English to turn it in, falling asleep slumped over her books. And when he asked students to please give back, I thought about how this undocumented immigrant already received a Presidential leadership award for her service, and how she spent all day Friday helping two Wyandotte High School immigrants, just like her, to complete their scholarship applications for college.

Even when we sang the Star-Spangled Banner, I thought of her. “Land of the free and home of the brave…” She is one of the most courageous people I know, but she still isn’t free, not free to apply for the jobs that her classmates are competing for, not free to accept the international fellowship she was offered, not even free to tell her real story to strangers.

I cried when they called her name. I would have cried harder had I known then, as she told me last night, that the Dean had tears in his eyes when he gave her the diploma and said, “Your dream was my dream.” I cried because her victory yesterday, while largely belonging to her family and to her, was also, in a real way, a victory of opportunity over fear, of embrace over rejection, of vision over hatred, of possibility over isolation. It was the kind of victory only possible when a lot of people start to care, deeply, about something that should not, logically, be their battle, and when they are willing to put aside some of their personal ambitions in deference to that larger good. And so, mostly, as I hugged her last night at the party her parents threw at the restaurant they now run, we both cried in gratitude.

This won’t be a complete list, and so I won’t even pretend to include everyone, but as I sat in McCain Auditorium yesterday morning, I thought of a journey that began with Sulma Arias in Wichita telling me that undocumented kids couldn’t go to college (in 2001) without paying out-of-state tuition…a journey that is still far from over, as we have work to do in Congress and all across this country, but a journey that, included, yesterday, a beautiful moment when a young woman’s dream converged with that of her Dean, and they both came true.

Thank you, Representative Sue Storm, for believing that we could change the law, and for being willing to make it your priority.

Thank you, Representative Tom Sloan, for angering your Speaker, if that’s what it took, and for refusing to be bullied.

Thank you, Senate Majority Leader Lana Oleen, for spending some of your precious political capital on these kids who needed a champion.

Thank you, Representative Ward Loyd, for being their soft-spoken defender and for never, ever giving up.

Thank you, Senator Christine Downey, for calling out colleagues too fearful to do the right thing.

Thank you, Senator Dwayne Umbarger, for taking hits for those who can’t even vote for you, and for stepping up when you saw that we needed you. I’ll never forget watching you watch the House take its vote–you didn’t know that anyone was watching you, but you just had to be there to see these kids get their chance.

Thank you, Senator David Adkins, for being stubborn enough and brash enough to force the Speaker of the House to play ball.

Thank you, Reggie Robinson and Dick Bond, for making the Kansas Board of Regents live up to its mandate to protect higher education and for turning education into a moral imperative.

Thank you, Chancellor Hemenway and Presidents Wefald and Schallenkamp, for putting your universities on record welcoming these students.

Thank you, Senators Susan Wagle and Karin Brownlee, for defying conventional wisdom and your ideological leaders and voting your consciences.

Thank you, Senators Derek Schmidt and John Vratil, for your thoughtful consideration and intellectual leadership, which brought along many of your colleages.

Thank you, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, for promising your entire Democratic delegation, and delivering.

Thank you, Governor Kathleen Sebelius, for never letting a lawsuit scare you and for forcing our opponents to muster veto-proof majorities for their repeal attempts.

Thank you, KSU faculty and administration, especially Mindy Wexelman at the Endowment (who immediately set to work figuring out how to make this all happen) and Pat Bosco, who was 100% delighted to have A. from the day she arrived.

Thank you, Dean Law, for dreaming our dream.

Thank you, Mary Sanchez, for listening to her story, and for putting a face on these kids.

Thank you, fellow lobbyists, especially Sister Therese Bangert, the League of Women Voters, the KCK Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Association of School Boards, Kansas NEA, and my good friends at Kansas Families for Education. Your work to bring your organizations along depoliticized the idea of opening our universities to all Kansas kids, and your conversations with legislators gave us the votes we needed.

Thank you, KSU students, for donning “Wildcats DREAMing” t-shirts to support the DREAM Act, and for, almost without exception, responding with righteous indignation when A. told you her story.

Thank you, Pam Fuller and Ramon and Sally Murguia and others who gave of your own money to help immigrant kids afford a college education. Your witness of love and generosity and confidence in their futures is an investment in our entire nation.

And, as A. said last night, thank you Kory, for all of the nights that you were home alone.

My tears yesterday, though, weren’t just in gratitude for A.’s personal success. They were also in recognition of how her ascent, made possible by those above who opened the door, is also opening doors for others–for other students, who now know that their own immigration status need not stop them; for those whose prejudices are cracked open by the humanity she radiates; for those lawmakers who see the good that can come of expansive immigration legislation; for those educators who see the value of investing in every young person, no matter the disadvantages. As I told several of the celebrants last night, to get her diploma, A. didn’t just have to study, she had to advocate. She had to lobby and organize and agitate. And so, she was not the only one who learned, a lot, from the past several years. Her education was an education for many, hopefully full of lessons for us all.

Felicidades, con todo corazon.

2 responses to “Opening Doors

  1. You forgot someone: Thank you, Melinda, for fighting so long, so hard, and so smart.

  2. melindaklewis

    I knew that I’d be horrible at this–I was up a lot with my daughter last night, and I kept thinking of people I forgot! First, I should have listed all of the students, both those who are now in college and those who haven’t made it there yet, whose courage and voice and spirit, like A.’s, animated this campaign from the first moment–D., who was my waitress in a Mexican restaurant and became an organizer; C., who delighted every legislator who ever met her, EM., who seemed to know absolutely everyone (and they all owed her a favor!), J., who earned his Green Card just before the end of his first semester (and got cited in a federal court case as a result!), and dozens more. And, of course, their parents, whose sacrifice made this all an issue in the first place, and whose desire to see opportunities for their children drove them to put up with humiliation and abuse that no one should have to suffer, and who, without exception, are the heroes these students most admire.

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