RALEIGH — A veteran of the war in Iraq who says she was denied in-state tuition when she applied to The University of North Carolina at Pembroke has delivered a petition containing more than 145,000 signatures to the UNC Board of Governors in Chapel Hill seeking a policy change.
Hayleigh Perez on Thursday delivered the petition titled “UNC Board of Governors: Stop Discriminating Against Student Veterans,” which she created at change.org. She said she wants the leaders of UNC schools to change the way student veterans are handled.
“It is my hope today for this petition to show the UNC school system that American citizens, 145,000-plus, stand behind their student veterans,” Perez said.
Perez, who is now enrolled at Methodist University in Fayetteville, met privately with UNC System chief of staff Kevin Fitzgerald, who met her at the door to take in the petition. She said veterans across the country have endured similar problems.
“No one should be met with the malice and unprofessional treatment that I encountered with the UNC school system,” Perez said.
The petition gained national attention after Perez aired her grievance with the university on Fox News. Kyle R. Carter, UNCP’s chancellor, responded to Perez’s allegations with a statement posted on the university’s website on Oct. 16, saying that state law was followed and UNCP “prides itself on being a military-friendly institution.”
“We are disappointed to read news reports of misleading statements attributed to Ms. Perez that tarnish UNC Pembroke’s excellent reputation and relationship with our military,” Carter said in the statement. “While I cannot speak to Ms. Perez’s case specifically, I assure the public her case was handled professionally, deliberately and objectively.”
Perez, 26, deployed to Iraq for 14 months with the 36th Area Support Medical Company, which took care of prisoners and coalition forces at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. While in Iraq, she said she kept her apartment in Fayetteville and came back to it when her deployment ended.
Perez married a medic for the 82nd Airborne in 2008 and bought a house in Hoke County. In 2009, the Army sent Perez’ husband to Texas on a recruiting assignment, and then she got orders to go to there as well.
When her assignment ended, Perez left the military and remained in Texas with her husband. She had a daughter and stayed home to raise her.
As her husband’s assignment neared its end last year, Perez said the couple asked the Army to send him back to Fort Bragg, which they considered home. Last fall, as soon as they knew they would be coming back to North Carolina, Perez applied to colleges that had the courses she would need to get her master’s degree and become a physician assistant.
She said she sent the same application materials to each school, and was accepted to both UNC-Pembroke and Fayetteville State University, both part of the UNC System. But while FSU recognized her as a state resident for tuition purposes, UNC-Pembroke did not.
While he acknowledged in the statement that Fayetteville State University accepted Perez as an in-state resident, Carter stood behind UNCP’s decision.
“… UNC Pembroke is required to evaluate residency petitions using a prescribed state process,” Carter said in the statement. “The UNCP Residency Appeals Committee compares information provided by the student against North Carolina residency statutes. UNC Pembroke followed those procedures and, as reported in the press, determined Ms. Perez to be a non-resident.”
A lengthy section of North Carolina’s general statutes describes who can be considered an in-state resident for the purpose of tuition. It says that active-duty military members and those in the N.C. National Guard should be treated as in-state residents, and it makes provisions for dependents of active-duty military members.
Joni Worthington, vice president of communications for the UNC System, could not say why one school in the system would consider Perez a state resident and another would not. But she said that Perez’ appeal went before a state panel, whose members found that the law had been properly applied.
Worthington said administrators are working on a new approach to consolidate residency determination for all 16 UNC campuses.
“Ms. Perez’s case has become an emotional issue for those who care about our military personnel,” Carter said in the statement. “UNC Pembroke cares, too. I fully understand the emotion, but ask for your understanding; UNC Pembroke must follow state statutes in determining residency.”