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Georgia Bans Undocumented Students

In October 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents passes Policy 4.1.6, banning undocumented students from the top five public universities in Georgia (University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Augusta University, and Georgia College), and Policy 4.3.4, banning undocumented students from in-state tuition rates. Georgia becomes only one of three states - including Alabama and South Carolina - to pass an admissions ban against undocumented students, effectively ushering in a new era of educational segregation in the U.S. South. 

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Freedom University Opens its Doors

In October 2011, Freedom University opens its doors in Athens, Georgia. Freedom University is founded by a broad coalition of undocumented students (including Keish Kim, Georgina Perez, Gustavo Madrigal), documented student allies (including Allie McCullen, Claire Bolton, Juan Cardoza-Oquendo), immigrant rights activists (Beto and Noe Mendoza), and four professors at the University of Georgia (Dr. Lorgia Garcia-Peña, Dr. Betina Kaplan, Dr. Pamela Voekel, and Dr. Bethany Moreton). Local organizations such as the Economic Justice Coalition and the Athens Latino Center for Education and Services (ALCES) provide vital support and resources to Freedom University. While the state of Georgia bans undocumented students from public universities, Freedom University provides a safe space where undocumented students could continue their education. In its early years, the curriculum at Freedom University involves a six-week humanities course in Athens.

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DACA and Freedom University Growth

On June 15, 2012, the Obama administration announces the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. DACA provides certain undocumented students who meet strict age, residency, and educational requirements with reprieve from deportation, a work permit, and a driver's license. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth across the country apply for DACA, providing fees and sensitive personal and biometric information to the federal government. In exchange, those approved for DACA are able to drive and work with authorization. However, in states like Georgia with admissions bans, DACA did not translate into access to higher education. Despite tremendous barriers to higher education, Freedom University students persist in their commitment to their education, and classes are held in the Fall 2012 semester. With the help of their professors and mentors, Freedom University students begin matriculating into welcoming private universities, such as Tougaloo College, Berea College, Hampshire College, and Syracuse University. 

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Transition to Atlanta

In August 2013, professors Pamela Voekel and Bethany Moreton recruit Atlanta-based activist and human rights educator Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis to Freedom University's volunteer teaching team, and hold Freedom University's first classes in Atlanta at the Martin Luther King Sr. Community Resources Complex in the historic Sweet Auburn District. In November, two Freedom University students are arrested at a Georgia Board of Regents meeting in Atlanta for a non-violent act of civil disobedience protesting the bans against undocumented students. 

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A Year of Transitions: 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer

In early 2014, the founding professors depart the organization to accept positions at Harvard and Dartmouth. Dr. Betina Kaplan moves on to establish U-Lead, an educational program for immigrant high school students in Athens, Georgia. Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, who had previously served as a volunteer human rights faculty member, is appointed Freedom University's Executive Director and first full-time staff member.

In August 2014, Soltis permanently relocates Freedom University to Atlanta, Georgia in order to develop a strong network of allied social justice organizations and set the foundation for future admissions campaigns at Atlanta area campuses. Soltis implements a new horizontal leadership structure by forming a Board of Directors and active Student Committee comprised of elected undocumented student leaders. As an experienced human rights educator and social movements scholar, Soltis recruits faculty from across Atlanta university campuses and expands the curriculum based on student surveys to include border studies, debate and public speaking, STEM classes, college preparation, SAT bootcamp, and arts courses in music, photography, and theater. As a longtime student activist and movement strategist in the South, Soltis also introduces a human rights framework to strengthen Freedom University's advocacy work, develops relationships with other student, labor, immigrant rights, and racial justice movements, and institutes a rigorous movement leadership program to empower undocumented youth. In June 2014, Soltis takes 10 students to Jackson, Mississippi to participate in the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer Conference and begins a mentorship program linking Black Freedom Movement veterans with undocumented student leaders.

As a result, Freedom University students are not only learning from top faculty in Atlanta and earning full scholarships to college, they are effectively leading and carrying out a movement strategy to change private university admissions policies and advance equal access to higher education across the United States.

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Victory at Emory University

Following a year-long campaign, in which Freedom University formed relationships with students and faculty at Emory University and co-founded the Freedom at Emory Initiative with the goal of expanding Emory's admissions policy to undocumented students, Emory University announces in April 2015 that it will accept academically-qualified DACA students without discrimination and provide full, need-based financial aid. Emory becomes the first private university in Georgia to publicly accept undocumented students. Expanding on this strategy of educating documented student and faculty allies at private universities, Freedom U partners with allies at Bard College, Smith College, and Soka University. By the end of the following academic year, each university has changed its admission policy to accept undocumented students. 

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A Year of Good Trouble

On February 1, 2016, on the 56th anniversary of the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins, Freedom University students and more than 70 student allies from 12 universities across the country, integrate classrooms at the University of Georgia, Georgia State, and Georgia Tech in a courageous act of creative civil disobedience. Under Georgia Board of Regents' Policy 4.1.6, undocumented and documented students are banned from learning together in the same classroom. 14 students are arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. 

On May 10, 2016, Freedom University students and documented allies take over the Board of Regents' meeting, sit in the Regents' chairs in the boardroom, and hold a student-led hearing on the impact of Policy 4.1.6, calling expert witnesses that include a Georgia State Senator, a human rights attorney, and an undocumented student leader. Seven students are arrested and charged with disrupting a public hearing. 

On November 9, 2016, just hours after the election of Donald Trump, 20 undocumented students and faith leaders disrupt the Georgia Board of Regents and hold an interfaith prayer to end modern segregation in Georgia. Three weeks later, the Georgia Board of Regents decides to remove Georgia State University and Augusta University from the five-college ban under Policy 4.1.6. 

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A Year of Sanctuary

Following the inauguration of President Trump, Freedom University takes a national leadership role in the sanctuary campus movement. Freedom University teams up once again with its student and faculty allies at Emory University to form the Emory Sanctuary Coalition, and develops a set of policy standards for campuses committed to protecting undocumented students. In response, Emory announces it will expand its admissions policy beyond DACA recipients to include fully undocumented students. In response to Freedom University's sanctuary campaign, the Georgia Legislature passes HB 37, the first and only anti-sanctuary campus bill in the nation, which punishes any private university for declaring a sanctuary campus status. During the same legislative session, the Georgia Legislature passes a Campus Carry Bill. In Georgia, guns are welcome on public university campuses, while undocumented students are not. 

In response, Freedom University develops the MELT ICE Program (the Mass Emergency Lookout Text for Immigration and Customs Enforcement), a SMS beacon to protect undocumented students on university campuses in Atlanta. Freedom University also establishes a Mental Health Program to provide undocumented students with access to free weekly sessions with trained mental health professionals in the Atlanta area. 

On September 5,2017, the Trump administration announces the repeal of DACA. Freedom University holds free legal-aid clinics for undocumented students and covers the cost of DACA renewal applications.  

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Building the Alternative

Despite an increasingly hostile political climate and the uncertain future of the DACA program, Freedom University continues to build the world we know is possible: we continue to be the only true sanctuary campus in the nation where all of our students are undocumented. Whatever barriers and challenges may come our way, Freedom University students will continue to wear their "F.U. Georgia" t-shirts without apology. As a beloved community, we will continue to love and support one another, and fulfill our students' human right to education so that they can develop their full human potential and grow into leaders in the immigrant rights movement for decades to come. 

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