CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Hayleigh Perez, a veteran of the U.S. Army, walked up to the University of North Carolina general administration offices with a box of petitions Thursday to present to UNC officials asking them to allow veterans who live in North Carolina to pay in-state tuition rates.
Perez was accompanied by her husband, Jose Perez-Rodriguez, who still serves in the Army, and other supporters, and they presented the box that included the names and addresses of about 147,000 people who signed the petition on the change.org website.
The petitions urge the UNC Board of Governors and UNC’s president to mandate that all UNC schools properly implement the rules for labeling veterans as in-state students and force an in-depth review of each veteran and dependent. It also asks UNC to allocate adequate services to better serve student veterans.
Perez’s joined the Army in 2005 and was stationed at Ft. Bragg. She was deployed to Iraq for 15 months, and met her husband while both were serving there. When they returned to North Carolina, they decided they liked North Carolina and wanted to make it their home.
They bought a house in Raeford, but later the military relocated them to Texas, where Perez reached the rank of sergeant before being honorably discharged in 2009.
Her husband said while they were stationed in Texas, he constantly worked to be transferred back to their home in North Carolina and in April 2012, he received orders to return.
While they were in Texas, they continued to pay the property taxes on their North Carolina home and they still considered North Carolina their home, they said.
Perez, who wants to become a physician’s assistant, applied to schools in the UNC system, Fayetteville State University and UNC-Pembroke, and after being accepted she decided to attend UNC-Pembroke because of the classes the school offered.
Oddly, Fayetteville State classified her as a resident of North Carolina, but Pembroke did not. That meant she couldn’t fully use the money she earned on the G.I. Bill at Pembroke because the bill only pays the amount for in-state tuition.
Perez figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to work out her residency status at Pembroke, since FSU had accepted her as a North Carolina resident, but she was mistaken.
“I immediately appealed the ruling but was met with hostility and aggression,” Perez wrote in the petition.
Perez has since enrolled in a private college, but she said she is fighting for all the other veterans trying to take advantage of the G.I. Bill.
At the UNC office Thursday morning, Perez said it wasn’t just that she was denied in-state tuition, but that she was treated with rudeness and lack of cooperation.
Perez claims UNC officials also violated Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act when they released personal information about her to the media, she said.
Perez managed to collect so many signatures on her petition by posting it on the website, change.org. Hers caught fire, and people all over the country signed it and passed it to their friends through social media, and they signed it, too.
Jason Thigpen, founder of Student Veterans Advocacy Group, also became involved and supported Perez’s petition.
Once Perez, her husband, Thigpen and Eller and other supporters walked inside the UNC Office of the General Administration on Raleigh Road Thursday morning, Chief of Staff Kevin FitzGerald came out to the lobby and accepted the box of petitions and invited Perez back to his office to talk.
When she came out of FitzGerald’s office later, she said she didn’t feel much different that when she went in.
“The meeting we had with Mr. FitzGerald was similar to other meetings we’ve had with UNC administrators,” she said.
“We agreed that there are some issues here that need some drastic attention, but other than that it was relatively unsuccessful,” Perez said.
UNC-Pembroke was recently named a Military-Friendly School by G.I. Jobs magazine, and in a press release about the designation, it states that as a result of a recent study, it will create a one-stop office for military personnel and veterans in order to help them get the answers they need.