SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Dr. Hitesh Tolani, a 2004 Wofford College graduate and now a dentist in private practice in Boston, will speak at 11 a.m. Monday, March 20, at the college on “Welcoming Immigrants to Wofford and South Carolina.”
The program, which is free and open to the public, will be held in Leonard Auditorium in Main Building.
Tolani was accepted to Wofford and received a full scholarship, even when his immigration status was in question. His status was resolved with the help Judge Dennis W. Shedd ’75, judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Now, Tolani returns to campus to discuss his ordeal and welcoming immigrants to the college and to South Carolina.
Tolani was only a year old when his family immigrated to the United States, fleeing government upheaval in Sierra Leone, Africa, in the early 1980s. His father applied for permanent residency, and as he waited for the petition to be approved, he and his wife began a business and had another son.
When Tolani was 13, his father died – without receiving his permanent residency. Two years later, his mother tried to get back in line for residency, finally telling her son what he didn’t know – he wasn’t born in Chicago, as they had led him to believe; he was born in Africa and was an illegal immigrant.
“My mother and I decided to honestly approach the Immigration and Naturalization Service to help with getting back on track for residency,” he says. “We had always followed the law, paid our taxes and given back to the community. My father’s death was not our fault. However, in our meeting with representatives from the INS, we did not find the help we expected. Instead, we were immediately put into deportation proceedings.”
It took more than two years for their court hearing to be held, and the judge ruled that Tolani and his mother should be deported. His brother was born in the U.S., so he was a legal citizen. They got a lawyer and appealed the judge’s decision.
Two weeks after filing the appeal, Tolani was a freshman at Wofford. During the summer of his sophomore year, they lost that appeal, giving them 15 days to leave the country.
“At the time, there was no tutorial on how to save your family from deportation after your father has died,” Tolani says. “I needed to clear my own path and create my own opportunities. I needed to ask for help, build relationships, garner support and get people bigger than me involved. So, I did what any rational 20-year-old who was facing this predicament would do. I drove to the office of the local newspaper and I told them everything.”
The next day, Tolani’s family’s story “swept every paper and news station in South Carolina, and within the week, thousands of South Carolinians petitioned our legislature, which moved both (U.S.) senators from South Carolina to work diligently to save my family.”
About the time Tolani graduated from Wofford, magna cum laude, he and his mother became U.S. legal residents. “The decision set a precedent and I went on to receive a prestigious NIDCR fellowship at Harvard/Forsyth Institute.”
Tolani completed his dental training at the University of Pennsylvania and trained in residencies at the University of Washington, Stony Brook, and Tufts. Today, he lectures at both Tufts and Harvard dental schools and runs a company he started, Virtudent, a tele-health startup that provides mobile, convenient routine dental care for patients on the go as well as those who cannot afford a visit to a traditional dentist’s office.
Monday’s event is sponsored by the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.