Cheers thundered inside a packed student area at Metropolitan State University of Denver on April 29, as hundreds showed up to witness a bill-signing that will allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at Colorado colleges and universities.
And while Gov. John Hickenlooper's signature on Senate Bill 33 was the most important part of the event, it was one line in particular that perhaps earned the most enthusiastic reaction from the predominantly young crowd.
“Today, we're here to tell you that in Colorado, the doors are open and the dream is alive,” said state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.
The bill that has been dubbed ASSET — Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow — is finally a realization, 10 years after it was first introduced in the General Assembly, and after several failed attempts to get the legislation through.
“It feels I did something, like I accomplished something,” said Val Vigil, a former state lawmaker who was the first legislator to push for this type of proposal. Vigil is now a councilman and mayor pro tem for the City of Thornton.
“I always did it for the kids,” Vigil said afterward. “But now that it's done, it makes me feel great. It makes me feel wonderful.”
The act allows all students to pay in-state tuition rates so long as they are high school graduates who have attended a Colorado school for at least three years. It also requires that students actively seek legal residency status in the U.S.
The bill received bipartisan support in both legislative chambers this session.
The first words out of Hickenlooper's mouth before addressing the revved-up crowd were, “Holy smokes.” Later, he told reporters, “You could feel the energy in the room.”
“Part of it is just the symbolic aspect in how kids believe that their education matters and that they're gonna get the same chances as other kids they grew up with, all along,” Hickenlooper said. “It was a big day for a lot people in the audience out there.”
They included 21-year-old Marco Dorado, a former Thornton High School student who worried about his future when ASSET failed a few years ago. Dorado and his family emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a young boy.
“Access to higher education should not be contingent on good fortune, but rather on one's desire to succeed,” he said.
Former Denver Nuggets player Bill Hanzlik, a Metro State trustee, said afterward that stories like Dorado's is what ASSET is all about.
“We've been supporting this for some time and it's just great to see it come to fruition,” he said. “It's just neat to see how you're gonna impact kids' lives.”
Cesiah Guadarrama, an 18-year-old Westminster High School senior who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 6, said she plans to attend Metro State in the fall, now that she's able to afford her dream of attending college.
“I think of my parents being proud of me and pursuing a career and graduating college,” she said afterward. “And seeing that the reason why they came here is finally one step closer to becoming a reality.”