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Paul Rolly: After nine-year fight, African woman gets correct diploma

Published January 6, 2014 7:22 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It took nine years and the threat of a campus protest, but a woman who fled the war-torn African country of Lesotho in 2000 and came to Utah on a student visa finally got her diploma bearing the correct year of graduation from Weber State University.

I have written several times through the years about Victoria Sethunya, who has faced arrest and potential deportation because of a technical mix-up by Weber State that left her without student-status protection.

The university had refused to deliver her diploma with the correct 2004 date of her graduation with degrees in English and chemistry. Because the diploma had 2005 instead of 2004, it was difficult for her to pursue a career as a legal immigrant with a temporary visa because her education timeline did not match up.

To make matters worse, after she received her bachelor's degree, she entered Weber State's master's program, studying criminal justice. But as she neared completion of that program and began preparing for a work visa in criminal forensics, her student status was abruptly canceled in 2006 and her enrollment for her final semester was revoked.

After initially being unable to find the reason for her canceled status, Sethunya was informed that she had not registered for a previous semester, which disqualified her under the foreign-student program.

That was not true. She had registered for every semester and had maintained a 3.0 grade-point average. The revocation was traced to a clerical error.

By the time that got cleared up and Sethunya received her master's degree, the deportation process already had begun. Her undergraduate degree wrongly listed 2005, not 2004, making it difficult for her to maintain her claim that she had met all of her obligations and was worthy of a work visa.

She was set to be deported, but that order was stayed on appeal. Immigration attorney Mark Williams said she since has applied for a U visa under the Violence Against Women Act because of an attack she suffered while in Utah. That got the attention of a victims' advocate in the Draper Police Department who has joined the cause for winning Sethunya legal status in the U.S.

A hearing on that claim won't occur for about seven months because of the thousands of cases ahead of hers, Williams said.

Through countless negotiations with Weber State to get the correct date on her diploma, Sethunya said she finally became optimistic of a resolution when the school's new president, Charles Wight, took the helm.

Optimism turned to frustration when the offer of the correct diploma came with the condition that she sign a release absolving Weber State of any liability in her case.

She refused to sign and seemingly was back to square one.

But when she scheduled a campus protest with several of her supporters the same day Wight was to celebrate his one-year anniversary as president, the school agreed to give her a corrected diploma without conditions.

Turns out, the First Amendment's freedom-to-assemble clause can work for immigrants, too.

prolly@sltrib.com