When CEO Ric Elias gave $1 million last fall to start a scholarship program for undocumented students, he expected the money to last for years.
But then 500 students applied, and Elias heard story after story of teens who maintained near-perfect grades while leading athletic teams, tutoring fellow students, volunteering at charities and raising siblings for parents working multiple jobs.
One even spoke three languages.
Elias, 46, ended up giving away every dollar in just five months, along with an additional $300,000 provided by other donors.
As a result, 13 honor roll students destined for minimum-wage jobs are now getting a full ride for four years of college.
This would suggest his Golden Door Scholars program is ending almost as quickly as it started, but Elias says hes prepared to do it all over again this year.
I know too much. I now know that we have a group of kids and the system is failing them and they are my neighbors, said Elias, co-founder of the Red Ventures Internet marketing firm in Fort Mill.
Ill give another $1 million if I have to and Ill keep giving every year until we get this thing settled.
By settled, he means the ongoing political tug-of-war over whether children of undocumented immigrants can have access to federal and state college loans and scholarships or at least be allowed to pay in-state tuition costs.
Opposition is fierce to both ideas, including critics who believe it would be rewarding those who came into the country illegally, not to mention taking scholarships from students born and raised in the U.S.
North Carolina has an estimated 35,000 undocumented students in its school systems and they are not eligible for state financial aid and in-state tuition rates.
On Wednesday, immigrant students from across the state are planning to gather in Raleigh to show support for a House bill that would allow in-state tuition rates for students who graduated from North Carolina schools and have lived here at least two years. At least 30 from Charlotte are expected to attend.
Golden Door Scholars received applications from students in 15 states, but decided to focus this year on teens from the Carolinas.
They have an average GPA of 4.47 and aspire to be doctors, engineers, biologists, psychologists, artists and members of military intelligence.
One teen was captain of his football team and a member of the marching band, and another started his own computer repair business.
Jose Bailey, 18, is among those who most impressed Elias. The teen, from a small town near Rocky Mount, was head of 100 cadets in his high schools Air Force JROTC program, while maintaining a 4.2 GPA. He speaks fluent English, Spanish and French and has long dreamed of being in the military.
Baileys divorced mother brought him here from Mexico when he was 7, and he remembers crying for two weeks. Shes now remarried to an American citizen, a farmer, who legally adopted Bailey. But that doesnt earn him citizenship.
I dont believe we should just be handed our citizenship. You cant just take the title, says Bailey. We should earn it, just like the Chinese who came here, or the Irish or anybody else who came as immigrants. They had to earn their way into American culture and thats what Latinos are going through now.
Another of the students, 18-year-old Jose Morales, cried a little on Friday, when Elias gathered the scholarship winners at Red Ventures for a two-day college prep program.
Morales says he made a special trip to the pizzeria in Greenville, S.C., where his mother works to tell her he won a scholarship. She alternately screamed and cried in front of her co-workers, he says.
My parents were raised in the Mexican circus, and here I am, going to Furman University, says Morales, who maintained a 4.9 GPA in AP classes while helping to raise his three siblings.
This is the kind of thing you hear about on TV an immigrant kid coming from the lowest of the low, and then going to college. Yes, I cried today.
Hopes for the future
Each of the students was presented with a free lap top Friday by Alantix Global Systems, a business partner of Red Ventures.
Elias hopes for more such participation as news of the scholarship program spreads.
He has already gotten some colleges on board with a 50-50 match on the scholarship money. Among those participating are Davidson College, Queens University of Charlotte, Wake Forest, Elon, Furman, Guilford College and High Point University.
Elias knew there would be criticism when he went public with his plan, but it wasnt as bad as he expected.
His logic is simple: The country pays thousands of dollars to educate undocumented students through grade 12, and then wastes the investment by denying them a shot at college, he said.
Its only at age 18, when they graduate from high school, that we decide to hold them accountable for something they didnt do, said Elias, a native of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory.
Why are they given a chance at 14 to achieve, but not at 18? Its sad that this has become a political issue, when really its a human rights issue.
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