Celi Palhua-Flores felt a sickening sense of deja vu as he applied to Virginia Tech earlier this year.
The 20-year-old had already applied - and been accepted - to the university in 2012, his senior year at Fairfax High School. But at age 8, Palhua-Flores had immigrated to the United States illegally from Peru, making him ineligible for in-state tuition.
“It seemed unfair,” Palhua-Flores said. “You work hard in high school, you set a certain expectation for yourself, and it all seemed so close.”
Yet the out-of-state tuition, more than double the in-state rate, proved an insurmountable obstacle for Palhua-Flores. But rather than shelve his college dreams, he took an alternative route, starting at Northern Virginia Community College’s Pathway to the Baccalaureate program.
The program focuses on students with barriers to college access and provides them support as they pursue a four-year college degree, starting with the transition from high school to NOVA. It launched in 2005 with 330 students and now receives about 2,500 students each year.
Of the students participating in the program, 79 percent of students are ethnic minorities, and 72 percent are immigrants or children of immigrants. Still, while the program provides structured support, a Pathway counselor and assistance with transferring to a four-year university, it cannot smooth all bumps in the road.
So two years after graduating high school, Palhua-Flores found himself in much the same place - applying to Virginia Tech but without enough money. His savings from working full-time could just cover the out-of-state tuition, but would leave him with nothing left over for room and board.
“I definitely had flashbacks,” Palhua-Flores said. “In my mind, I’m thinking that this could be all for nothing.”
Palhua had already cleared enough hurdles just to get to that point.
After immigrating to the United States with his parents, he entered third grade in Fairfax County knowing only a few words of English, but he worked hard to catch up to his peers. When his family moved to Arlington County two years later, he tested out of the English as a Second Language program.
“My parents came here to give me a better education,” Palhua-Flores said. “They brought me over here to give me a better chance, so I was going to take that chance.”
Palhua-Flores and his parents continued to bounce across Northern Virginia, following the minimum wage jobs his parents could get. Still, whether in Alexandria or Arlington or Manassas or Fairfax, Palhua-Flores worked, particularly excelling in math. By the time he graduated high school, he was taking mostly Advanced Placement classes, including both levels of AP Calculus.
Even as he applied for college, he knew in the back of his mind that being able to afford the tuition would be a longshot. But the blow was still devastating, and coming to NOVA seemed like a consolation prize.
Noelle Moreland, Palhua-Flores’ Pathway to the Baccalaureate advisor who taught Palhua-Flores’ orientation class the summer before he started in 2012, remembers his first months on campus.
“He was an arrogant little freshman,” Moreland said with a laugh. “He came in thinking, as most of them do, that he was too smart for NOVA. But then he realized how much he had to learn, and he really started to look at how he could get the most out of his experience.”
Palhua-Flores soon threw himself into extracurricular activities, all while balancing a full course load and a full-time job to save money. He served as a peer advisor through NOVA’s Pathway Advisory Council and a mentor to high school students, pushing them to take the opportunities they could.
Finally, this semester, as he finished up his classes for his associate degree in science, he found out he had been accepted to Virginia Tech again, but with his tight budget, it remained out of reach.
Then, on April 29, Moreland called him about attending an event at NOVA’s Alexandria campus. As a go-to student volunteer, Palhua-Flores thought nothing of it. But that event changed everything.
The event was actually a press conference for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who announced that select people living in Virginia illegally could be eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public universities.
Palhua-Flores, who had received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - the required federal prerequisite for in-state tuition - when that program started in 2012, would now be able to pursue his dream of studying electrical engineering at Virginia Tech. When he crosses the stage at the Patriot Center as part of the Northern Virginia Community College graduation on Sunday, he will have no reason for disappointment.
“If you think about it, it’s unbelieveable,” Palhua-Flores said. “Everything fell into place. You never know when those opportunities are going to come, so you just have to go for it and see what happens.”