Undocumented Student to Pay Off Debt
FEBRUARY 23, 2012
BY AKANE OTANI
One week ago, Eric Hyun Jae Cheon ’12, an undocumented student, was not sure he would be able to stay enrolled at Cornell for much longer. As a result of strong support from students, alumni and DREAM Act activists around the country, however, Cheon discovered Tuesday that he will be able to finish his final semester.
Saddled with $10,000 in outstanding tuition from the fall 2011 semester — a debt he needed to pay by Friday in order to remain enrolled at the University — Cheon launched a fundraising campaign on Feb. 14 to fight to stay at Cornell. Ineligible for federal financial aid or loans as an illegal immigrant, Cheon had, in the past, taken a leave of absence to work full-time to afford his education.
But after sharing his story, Cheon saw a wave of donations that has given him a chance to stay and complete his senior year at Cornell.
“It happened in the middle of work,” Cheon said, recalling the moment on Tuesday when he learned he had reached his fundraising goal. “I was working at the restaurant and then Adrian [Palma ’13] called me and said, ‘Did you hear we passed $10,000?’”
One of Cheon’s co-workers at the restaurant, Laura Schwartz ’12, said she did not realize Cheon was an undocumented student until she saw his personal website by chance. Stunned, Schwartz said she spent the week refreshing the website to see how close Cheon was to his fundraising goal.
“I thought, oh my gosh, that’s Eric … If anybody deserves to be here, it’s him,” Schwartz said. “I felt I needed to help him. I’m really proud of him for getting as far as he did.”
The outpouring of support was “astonishing,” Cheon said, adding, “I just realized that Cornell is such a good place. I feel like this is the first time I’ve been truly happy here.”
Although Cheon, by speaking publicly about his undocumented status, risks deportation, he said he is not considering the possibility right now. He hopes that other undocumented students will also come forward and share their stories.
Palma, who helped publicize Cheon’s fundraising campaign, said that by “putting a personal face to the issue,” Cheon sparked support for other undocumented students in the community.
“Hopefully this will help undocumented students at Cornell know that Cornell students are willing to think outside of academics and daily tasks and think about a community that is out there,” Palma said. “That’s the beauty of it … that a community united to help him out.”
With $20,000 left to pay toward spring semester tuition, Cheon said “it’s not the end of the story.” Still, he expressed his gratitude to those who reached out to him.
“It doesn’t really matter if you donated or signed a petition. No gift is too small,” Cheon said. “The fact that [people] went to my blog, were interested and wanted to know about me really gives me courage and strength. I really thank everybody.”