Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tuition paid for valedictorian in legal limbo

Wow! This is amazing. I'm glad that this person is bringing attention to a situation that literally affects thousands of Immigrant youth throughout the U.S. The government and the American people should really honor merit. -Angela

Tuition paid for valedictorian in legal limbo
John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The future looked bleak for 17-year-old Arthur Mkoyan a couple of weeks ago.

A 4.0 student and the valedictorian at his high school in Fresno, Arthur had lost his chance to study chemistry at UC Davis this year because of immigration problems involving his father, who had come to the United States more than 16 years ago. He wasn't sure if he would stay in the States, get deported or ever finish his education.

Until Sherry Heacox stepped in.

The Danville resident saw a story about Arthur's plight in The Chronicle in July and decided to help him out. She's going to pay for him to go to UC Davis for four years.

"I didn't believe it at first," Arthur said. "I thought it was a joke."

No joke. Heacox said she stewed over the article for several days, frustrated and angry over a situation that seemed so hopeless for the young man. She wondered why no one would step forward and help this young man who had so much to offer his adopted land.

And then, a thought came to her.

"Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is," she said.

Education isn't cheap. The university estimates the annual cost for an undergraduate student, with in-state tuition, to be about $25,000.

It's not as if this will be easy for the Heacox family. Heacox runs a food-importing business and her husband, Hank, is an engineer. The couple just got done paying for their daughter's education at UC Santa Barbara. Heacox didn't want to say how much she intended to pay for Arthur's education, other than to say she will pick up the tab for everything: tuition, fees, books, room and board.

"This isn't Bill Gates we're talking about," she said. "It's not as if the money won't be missed."

Arthur's parents fled Armenia in 1991 after his father, Ruben Mkoian (father and son spell their surname differently), exposed corruption at the government office where he worked; the family's house was burned down and a shop they owned was ransacked.

Mkoian and his family settled in Fresno and Mkoian applied for asylum. Seven years later, his claim was denied, and he appealed all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The court turned him down this year, saying he had failed to establish a "well-founded fear of persecution" if he returned to Armenia.

In April, federal immigration authorities detained Arthur's father and prepared to deport him. His mother was allowed to remain free to care for Arthur and his 12-year-old, U.S.-born brother until the date of their departure.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., heard about the family's case and, on the very day of Arthur's commencement, and just days before the family's scheduled deportation, introduced a private bill in the U.S. Senate that led to Mkoian's release after two months in detention and could grant the family lawful permanent residence.

Such bills rarely pass - an estimated 3 percent are approved - but as long as the legislation is pending, the removal order remains suspended, which gives Arthur and his family a temporary reprieve that could last a couple of years.

While the issue of deportation remains alive, the family is hopeful - and amazed that someone would make such a generous offer of help.

"She is a wonderful, wonderful lady," said Arthur's mother, Asmik Karapetian. "When she called us to say she wanted to pay, we couldn't believe it. Arthur was jumping for joy. This is like a dream come true."

Heacox said she decided to help Arthur because she doesn't like how his family was treated. "We're all immigrants," she said. "Some of us just got here earlier than others."

She also supports education, she said, and Arthur's plight struck her deeply.

"Anyone who is willing to study hard and get an education - especially in the sciences - ought to have the chance to do so," she said.

And then, too, there was a desire to do something special, something worthwhile. To make a difference in the life of another human being.

"I don't want to be one of the people in life where the best thing I did on this earth was die off," she said.

New-student orientation is on Sunday. Arthur and his parents will be there.

And so will Sherry Heacox.

CORRECTION: This story incorrectly stated that the family of a high school student trying to go to UC Davis had come to the United States illegally. The Mkoian family entered the country on a tourist visa and applied for asylum, which was denied. A deportation order then was issued.

E-mail John Koopman at

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.

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