Diversity and Democracy

Freedom University: “Where You Walk in Undocumented and Leave Unafraid”

Freedom University was founded in 2011 as a modern-day freedom school for undocumented students, after the Georgia Board of Regents enacted Policy 4.1.6. and Policy 4.3.4, preventing undocumented students from attending Georgia’s top public universities and receiving in-state tuition (University System of Georgia 2018). Based in an undisclosed location in Atlanta, Freedom University provides free college-level classes, college application and scholarship assistance, and movement leadership training.

We posed questions to Freedom University’s executive director Laura Emiko Soltis (below) and professor Fernando Esquivel-Suárez. A reflection from former student Rafael Aragón can be found here.

Soltis joined Freedom University as a volunteer faculty member in 2013 and has served as executive director since 2014. Soltis introduced a human rights framework and a horizontal leadership structure and expanded the curriculum to include courses chosen by students. As a social movement strategist, Soltis works to build bridges between undocu­mented and documented student groups, advocate for fair admissions and sanctuary policies in higher education, and culti­vate relationships between undocumented students and veterans of the Black Freedom Movement. Soltis teaches classes at Freedom University in international human rights, social movement theory, and immigration history.

What makes Freedom University different from other institutions of higher education?

Freedom University is unique in that every one of our students is undocumented. We are the one true sanctuary campus in the world. Our students arrived in the United States as young children from Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Uruguay, South Korea, Romania, Jamaica, Ghana, Mali, and Haiti. We are also different in our purpose, structure, and content.

The purpose of education at Freedom University is to empower students to overcome fear and reclaim their dignity and rights as human beings. We employ liberatory pedagogy, which aims to deepen our students’ consciousness and empower them to be leaders in their own freedom struggle (Freire 1970). One of my students, Jonathan, said it best when he described Freedom University as “the place where you walk in undocumented and leave unafraid.”

Our structure is unorthodox. We have no tuition, grades, degrees, mascots, or tenure. Students come because they want to learn. Teachers come because they want to teach. All Freedom University professors are volunteers. When you take away the clutter of educational institutions, you are left with something revolutionary: education. In this space of shared learning and growth, the boundaries of teacher and student are blurred, and everyone is free to teach and learn. This concept is central to liberatory pedagogy. Most of our professors are first-generation college graduates, people of color, or formerly undocumented immigrants. Students often note in their written reflections that this has a significant impact on their ability to imagine themselves succeeding in a certain career or life path.

Our content is driven by the students, who have a dialogue every semester about what subjects they want to learn. Students shape the university, unlike traditional universities that require students to shape themselves into the mold of the institution in order to succeed. Our courses and faculty mentorship programs prepare students to continue their college education after they graduate from Freedom University. We also conduct movement campaigns to change admissions policies at private universities across the country to increase access for undocumented students. As a result, one in three of our students at Freedom University this past year left with a full scholarship to college.

Our curriculum includes the social sciences and humanities, fine arts, biological and life sciences, and SAT and college preparation. Each semester, we also offer College Level Examination Program (CLEP) courses that allow students to earn credits that can transfer to a future university. In the social sciences and humanities, we explore the diversity and complexity of the human experience and the structures that shape our social world, with a critical lens of power to strengthen our students’ political consciousness. In our arts courses, students have chosen to study creative writing, music, dance, and drawing and painting. The arts provide a space where students can express their full selves—not just as caretakers in their families, low-wage workers, or people forced to live in the shadows. Blending a burnt sienna hue, finding a note in a suspended chord in choir, or nailing a salsa dance move allows them to forget—for a few hours—the trauma of this political moment and focus on the joy of being present in a beloved community.

Freedom University was inspired by the Freedom Schools of the Black Freedom Movement. How do that history and legacy inform Freedom University’s work?

The name Freedom University honors the legacy of the Freedom Schools championed by the civil rights workers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. These schools were founded on the ideas that true democracy requires the participation of all members of society and that education can be a tool for liberation and the development of grassroots leaders.

This legacy is not simply symbolic. As a graduate student studying the Black Freedom Movement and interracial labor movements in the South, I befriended Charles Black, Lonnie King, and Roslyn Pope, who were youth leaders of the Atlanta Student Movement, an affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. When I started teaching at Freedom University, I invited them to speak with and mentor students in my human rights classes. It was Charles who suggested I attend the Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference in Jackson, Mississippi, in summer 2014 with my students. During that conference, ten Freedom University students learned directly from movement giants like Marian Wright Edelman, Rita Schwerner Bender, and the late Julian Bond. These relationships no doubt changed the students forever, and as a teacher, I was inspired to weave this legacy into the content of my courses and into the soul of Freedom University.

As a professor of human rights and social movements, I aim not only to teach social movement theory and concepts like cognitive liberation (McAdam 1982) but also to bring about that liberation in students’ minds by teaching them to recognize inequality as injustice, to assert their human rights regardless of their citizenship status, and to believe that collective action can bring change. There is no better way to teach this than to put students in direct dialogue with the veterans who led the Black Freedom Movement as young people. And when you teach the history of race, immigration, incarceration, and labor in the United States to undocumented students, they catch on quickly that it is not a coincidence that the same public universities in Georgia that ban undocumented students today banned Black students in 1960. They realize that if Georgia’s public universities could be desegregated by student insurgency in the 1960s, they can be desegregated again.

What is the greatest challenge facing your students today?

The greatest challenge facing our students is fear. This fear has often been building in their daily lives for as long as they can remember. Fear of keeping secrets and being different from their friends. Fear of police. Fear of deportation. Fear of not getting into college. For many, fear is the defining force of growing up undocumented. Many students describe Freedom University as crucial to their growth because it is the only space outside of their homes where they can say they are undocumented and where they can explore the history and politics of “illegal immigration.”

With the Trump administration’s repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) on September 5, 2017, a wave of fear hit our students. Some students responded by being more fearless in their activism. Others retreated into isolation. Others promoted separatist politics based on race and immigration status and lashed out against allies, teachers, and even each other. As in many grassroots social justice organizations, the virulence and uncertainty of the political climate seeped into our organization, and we had to fight to keep our community together. But in doing so, we rediscovered that our strength truly lies in our differences, our inclusivity, and our practice of loving one another as a revolutionary act.

We are constantly working to address the challenge of fear in our community. Our Mental Health Program—which matches interested students with trained mental health counselors for one hour of free counseling each week—and our commitment to dialogue with one another are the best antidotes to fear.

As both a social movement scholar and practitioner, I strongly believe it is harmful to paint rosy pictures of social justice organizations in social movement history because, in reality, they are often messy, heartbreaking, and prone to self-destruction. After all, they are collective experiments in love and justice in a cruel and unjust world. I remind students about a story of a viejito (an elder) in South Texas who ended a community meeting filled with angry disagreements by saying, “Of course we are going to step on each other’s toes. We are trying to walk arm in arm.”

Why did you decide to teach at Freedom University?

I started teaching at Freedom University when I was just twenty-nine years old. Fresh out of my fieldwork with farmworkers in South Florida, I think I decided to teach at Freedom University because I genuinely wanted to keep learning, and I recognized that I learned the most when I was working alongside grassroots intellectuals and the oppressed. I also wanted to bring my whole self into the classroom. To my surprise, my strange set of skills as a scholar, artist, and activist came in handy at Freedom University: I was qualified to teach college-level classes. I had studied and participated in immigrant rights and farmworker rights movements. I was a self-taught photographer, painter, and singer who had learned to use art, music, and humor in direct actions. Most importantly, as my considerable arrest record proved, I was not afraid of getting in “good trouble” (Lewis 2018).

I am a first-generation college student on my father’s side and a first-generation American on my mother’s. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled that my first job out of graduate school involved working for free at an underground freedom school. But over time, they realized that working alongside low-income, immigrant youth fighting for their right to education was my way of honoring the sacrifices my parents had made for me. Growing up, I watched my father struggle as a road construction worker with a first-grade reading level. I watched my mother face racism as an immigrant woman of color. I felt an obligation to share my knowledge in a way that would most effectively challenge injustices against immigrants and disrupt the status quo in Georgia.

Freedom University is a space where I can practice liberatory pedagogy, where individuals generate collective genius by serving as both teachers and students. Putting this into practice is difficult. Sometimes faculty divert back to lecture-style instruction and away from a dialogue-based model. Other times students think they have nothing to learn from their teachers. Students have asked me, “As a citizen, what could you possibly teach me about being undocumented?” I have explained, “I am not going to teach you about being undocumented. You are experts in that field, and you will always be my teachers in that experience. But I am going to teach you how powerful people use borders, legal systems, cultural norms, and divide-and-conquer strategies to maintain their power, and how these strategies change over time. I am also going to teach you how powerless people have organized across borders, challenged unjust laws, transformed cultural norms, and formed diverse coalitions of solidarity to reclaim their power. And one day you will teach these things to others, just as I myself have been taught.”

These are the reasons I joined Freedom University. Five years later, I’m still making good trouble.


Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Lewis, John. 2018. “Why Getting into Trouble is Necessary to Make Change.” Time, January 4. http://time.com/5087349/why-getting-into-trouble-is-necessary-to-make-change.

McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

University System of Georgia. 2018. “Section 4.0: Student Affairs.” In Board of Regents Policy Manual: Official Policies of the University System of Georgia. https://www.usg.edu/policymanual/section4/.

Laura Emiko Soltis is Executive Director and Professor of Human Rights at Freedom University.

Previous Issues