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An Immigrant’s Road to Harvard

Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenberg
College and Career Preparation

Site Coordinator Joe Rothenberg didn’t let the lack of documentation papers keep a talented student from getting into the Ivy League school of her dreams.

Growing up, M* never felt particularly different from her classmates in Charlotte, N.C. It wasn’t until she was at South Mecklenburg High School and signing up for driver’s education that she realized she had a secret to hide.

“There’s a rule in North Carolina that to get a driver’s license, you need a Social Security number,” M said. “And I didn’t have one.”

M moved to the United States from Mexico when she was five. And although she occasionally heard her parents talk about missing important papers, it never occurred to the young woman that those papers made the difference between being documented and undocumented immigrants.

Suddenly, even though she was going to be the class valedictorian, M’s dream of being the first in her family to go to college felt impossible to achieve. How could she apply if she wasn’t an American citizen? Would she be putting herself and her family in jeopardy of being deported? M went to her guidance counselor for help, and was referred to Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenberg Site Coordinator Joe Rothenberg.

Rothenberg, who is Cuban and feels an affinity with many of the Hispanic students at South Mecklenberg, was ready to help her get into the college of her choice.

“Isn’t it incredible; in the land of the free, being afraid of being recognized for something positive,” Rothenberg said. “I do understand completely. This is a straight-A student – and here she was, forced to fly under the radar.”

Before applying to schools and paying the application fees, Rothenberg worked with M to create a PowerPoint presentation to send to all the colleges she was interested in attending. The presentation outlined her situation, and asked the admissions offices if it was worth her time and money to apply. Each got back to her and said, ‘Yes, apply.’

In addition, Rothenberg called the admissions offices to act as a personal character reference, networked with graduates of the colleges, researched available scholarships for Hispanic students, and helped M apply to the ones that didn’t require documented citizenship.

“I think more than anything he gave me confidence,” M said. “He told me I could do it and helped me find a way to show schools I was interested and committed.”

M still can’t describe how she felt when she received letters of acceptance and financial aid from Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown and the University of Pennsylvania. But she does remember that one of the first things she did was get in touch with Rothenberg to let him know that all their hard work paid off.

“The one thing I love about my job as a site coordinator is that we are placed in a position to really make a difference in the life of a student,” Rothenberg said.

This past September, M started her second year at Harvard. She recently applied for protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and can now work on campus and fly home for the holidays without worrying about being held by airport security. M hasn’t selected a major yet, but is thinking about studying government. She’s interested in becoming a lawyer andpracticing immigration law.

*Student's name has been changed to protect the identity of her family.

In North Carolina