By Joyce Yin | NAKASEC Staff
In January 2012, Hyun Jae Cheon, an undocumented Korean American student at Cornell University, faced the very real possibility that he might not be able to continue his education this spring because he lacked funds to pay off his tuition.
After talking with Cornell faculty, peers and friends, he decided to launch CornellDreaming to share his story and to fundraise in hopes that he would be able to raise enough money to stay at Cornell and finish his education. In one week, through a tremendous outpouring of support from the Cornell community and beyond, he was able to raise the $10,000 and stay enrolled in school. As a youth leader who has worked with NAKASEC and our affiliate, KRC, we sat down with Hyun Jae to talk about his story and how CornellDreaming came about.
Tell us about how CornellDreaming all came together
For every semester, I had to come up with a plan to pay for my tuition. It was no different at the beginning of this semester. Previously, I was able to stay at Cornell through money I had saved, which includes contributions from my family and relatives. But this semester, I only had $10,000 out of the $20,000 needed. I was facing the real possibility of being withdrawn from the university. So I started knocking at every door that I could here at Cornell and ended up talking to Renee Alexander, the Associate Dean of Students and Director of Intercultural Programs, and Patricia Nguyen, the Director of Asian & Asian American Center. After sharing my story, they referred me to some students who are active on the DREAM Act on campus.
That’s when I met Adrian Palma, the vice president of La Asociacion Latina and together we started brainstorming fundraising ideas with only 10 days left until tuition deadline. Adrian shared with me a blog site that an undocumented Harvard student launched for her Mater’s and Ph.D degrees. I had found my fundraising vehicle. That weekend, I came up with a blog site with the name “CornellDreaming” and on Tuesday, February 14, I launched the blog and started spreading word through Facebook and Twitter.
What was the reaction you got from fellow students and teachers when you unveiled the website? We read that your friend Laura Schwartz “felt [she] needed to help you” – how did she, and any of your other friends and peers, get involved to help you reach your goal?
I got overwhelming support from so many different people. On the night that I launched my blog, I met with a group of students who were willing to help. We started spreading the word on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. We said we would update our status at 12am and 12 pm so that friends could notice it easily. We also made quarter cards and started distributing to people in the libraries, streets and posted on the bulletin boards. Fortunately, many students who helped this campaign were board members of different ethnic groups at Cornell. They also sent emails to people on their listservs to help spread the word and gave me speaking opportunities during their general meetings.
A reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun also saw my quarter cards at the library and visited my blog. She was very inspired and wrote an article in the Sun, which I think had really big impact in reaching out to alumni network. On the day the story published, about $5,000 in support came in.
Were there people who, after finding out you are undocumented, who didn’t understand? How did you respond?
Cornell is a very diverse university, yet it lacks a sizable population of students from low-income families and especially undocumented students. Also, many students do not know or have not even heard of the term, ‘undocumented’, although some are familiar with the term “illegal” immigrant. I spent a lot of time trying to raise awareness to students who were not familiar with the issue, talking to them about why I couldn’t apply for financial aid or a student loan and the ongoing challenges of young undocumented people.
We know that you’ve been involved with other Korean American undocumented youth from other cities like those who are part of AKASIA in Los Angeles. How have those experiences with those youth helped form your own sense of leadership?
I think all of this would not have been possible if I had not been involved with NAKASEC and AKASIA. Before I was involved, I had no idea what grassroots movement and organizing meant. But I learned how to tell people about my story, launch a campaign and effectively build relationships with people.
I also learned a lot from other student leaders in AKASIA. Before I met them, I was very indifferent about this issue even though I was undocumented. I think it was because I had not met others who were going through what I was going through. But getting to know AKASIA members and working with them was a different experience – it was the first time I shared my story with people outside of my friends, the first time I actually saw people working for the DREAM Act and the first time I saw young people vocal and out in the open for this cause.
Do you have any suggestions and/or words of encouragement to share for students on other campuses who are in similar situations?
America is a Land of Opportunity, but you can’t wait for opportunities to come to you, you have to go find that opportunity.
I always believed that my status can’t stop me from what I want to do. It gave me a lot of hard times and challenges, but it is what shapes me as a person. I really like the quote “If you can’t avoid it, enjoy it.” I can’t get away from the fact that I am undocumented, but it gives me very unique perspective that I would not see otherwise.
Any other thoughts you would like to share?
I just want to thank everyone who has helped me to be here. It is not just the CornellDreaming team, but everyone in the past that I have met and been acquainted with. They all are parts of my life and ones who shaped me into who I really am today. Thank you.