Eric Hyun Jae Cheon ’12 says he faces a grim truth: he may have just one week left at Cornell.
Cheon, an undocumented student who is living in the U.S. illegally, must pay the University $10,000 in tuition owed for the fall semester by Feb. 24 or he will no longer be allowed to enroll at Cornell, administrators confirmed Thursday. Students banded together shortly before midnight on Wednesday, posting fliers on street lights, Thurston Bridge and the doors of Day Hall asking people to donate to help Cheon meet his payment, according to Oscar Correia ’14, one of the advocates.
Despite scrambling to pay tuition every semester he has been at Cornell — working 30 to 40 hours a week while juggling five engineering classes — Cheon has remained focused on his goal: completing his education. He currently works 12-hour shifts at a restaurant, and previously took a leave of absence from Cornell to work full-time, tutoring students and working in a factory to pay for his education.
“I tried to stay really positive,” Cheon said. “I thought, ‘I’m undocumented? … So what? I can go to college, but I can’t get financial aid? Okay, I can work with that.’”
Although Cheon risks deportation by drawing attention to his undocumented status, he said he speaks openly about his issues because he is convinced that “it’s really important for people to speak out about their stories and not be afraid or embarrassed.”
“I think the Cornell community should know that there are people struggling; that’s why I decided to come out about it,” Cheon said.
There are somewhere between 15 to 30 undocumented students on campus, although their exact numbers are unknown by the University, The Sun reported in November. Like these students, Cheon is ineligible to receive federal financial aid or take out loans to finance his tuition.
“I was 12 years old when I first came here from Korea … My family came here to run a business, but the owner was a scammer who took our money and ran away,” Cheon said, explaining that his family had entered the U.S. planning to stay with an E-2 visa, which individuals running businesses are eligible to apply for.
Cheon said that his family argued back and forth over whether to remain in the U.S. without a visa or to return to Korea, but that he made it clear he wanted to stay and pursue his education.
“That’s how we ended up being illegal immigrants,” Cheon said.
As of Thursday evening, Cheon had raised $1,720 through his personal website, which students have helped publicize. He said the fundraising needed this week is “not the end, but a continuing effort,” as he still has to raise the $20,000 to pay for spring semester.
A few weeks ago, Cheon decided to share his story with Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs. He walked straight into her office to introduce himself.
“I was shocked. I was really taken aback by his personal narrative,” Alexander said. “I had no face-to-face experience with undocumented students before, so [Cheon’s] story of humility, strength and forthrightness spoke to me. Here is a young guy who is really trying to complete his education, living in the shadows and not having papers to move about freely.”
Adrian Palma ’13, co-president of La Asociacion Latina, a Latino umbrella student organization, echoed Alexander’s shock at Cheon’s openness about his undocumented status.
“When I met up with him in a restaurant, I didn’t know he was open about his status, so I asked him, ‘Are you comfortable sharing your story? We can keep our voices down,’” Palma recalled. “He said, ‘No, I’m very open about it’ … I think, in general, it can serve as an example that you shouldn’t be afraid of showing who you are.”
Alexander said that Cheon not only “puts a face on undocumented students’ situations,” but also raises questions about how the University can support students like him.
“The New York State DREAM Act — what it means, how it will be interpreted — is coming to the forefront,” she said. “We’re going to be hearing more about this issue. How can we support one group over another? It’s very complicated.”
Patricia Nguyen, assistant dean of students and director of the Asian and Asian American Center, said she also tried to help Cheon. After meeting him through Alexander, Nguyen said in an email that she “moved quickly” to try to find avenues of support for Cheon through the University.
“We walked around on campus, service to service, to see what resources we could find. As expected, we did get a lot of ‘no’s,’ but I was so inspired by [Cheon’s] positive attitude," Nguyen said.
Nguyen said she has shared Cheon’s story with alumni and professional networks.
“I think it’s important to support students like Eric because this isn’t his problem, or just a Latino problem — this is all of our problems,” she wrote. "Education, [and] in particular institutions of higher education, are places of access and change in our society. It would be unfortunate that an institution that can serve as a tool for social change cannot be the change.”
Correia said he wants to help raise awareness about undocumented students at Cornell.
“People know there are millions of them in the U.S.A. but don’t realize that some of them are here,” he said, adding that Cheon is the first undocumented student he has met who has had “such a financial struggle.”
Cheon said the support he has received, with people “staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. to finish writing petitions [for him],” has blown him away.
“I don’t know how to pay everyone back for their contributions … but Renee [Alexander] said that you can pay it forward and not back,” he said. “I can get out of here, I can be successful and I can support those who need help.”
While Cheon said he plans on pursuing a career in tech startup after graduating, he said he ultimately wants to continue advocating on behalf of undocumented students.
“My long-term goal is to be a philanthropist, because I’ve been through this situation for a long time,” he said. “I’m sure there will be other students in the future who will face similar difficulties.”