Ithaca, N.Y. — A student was forced to leave Cornell and told to repay three semesters’ worth of financial aid for failing to disclose on her application that she had attended a community college several years prior.

Hyuna Choi is now suing the university in civil court. She has been barred from appealing within the campus judicial system and faces a bill from Cornell of at least $100,000, according to court records.

Choi’s 2012 application to Cornell did not mention that she had attended Glendale Community College in 2003. Choi did not complete any classes at Glendale.

Cornell officials say they cannot comment given the ongoing civil litigation.


Cornell’s explanation

In emails made public through the lawsuit, however, Cornell administrators say that Choi was fraudulently accepted to the university and that her financial aid — more than $65,000 — was thus improperly received.

The application to Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences asked Choi to “report all college attendance beginning with your first year of college,” according to an email written by CALS Dean Kathryn Boor, according to court documents. (Choi’s lawyer says that Choi was only asked to state “all transcripts which she had been issued.”)

But, Boor said in an email to Choi, “the College has received information revealing that at least one significant and material portion of your application appeared to be false, i.e., you did not list all colleges and universities attended….”

“The Admissions Committee must have complete information about other college attendance to make an informed decision … Your failure to provide a complete and honest answer deprived the Committee of this material information,” Boor said.

Dean Boor’s letter, according to court record. Underlines by The Voice.

Administrators began looking into Choi’s record as she was being investigated in connection with a cheating complaint, according to records.


A draconian punishment?

Choi’s lawyer Sujata Gibson says that the transcript omission was an honest mistake that would have had no bearing on Cornell’s decision to admit or reject Choi.

Gibson makes the following points in court records:

— Choi received no grade for any of her class work at Glendale. “It is unclear that any of these transcripts would have made a material difference” in her acceptance to Cornell, Gibson said in court papers.

— Choi said she didn’t realize she had to disclose the transcript because it was several years old.

— Choi was “inarguably” a student at the time she was forced out of Cornell, so the university was obliged to allow her an appeal under its judicial code of conduct. Cornell did not do so.

Sujata Gibson in her law office. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

— Cornell should have scrutinized Choi’s record before accepting her for three semesters. It’s unfair to burden Choi with a huge bill so far into her time as a student, according to Gibson.

“Justice cannot allow the University to be allowed to spring fines of over $100,000 on an individual without any prior notice, opportunity for a hearing or provision of an appeal process,” Gibson said.

— More generally, Gibson says Cornell’s punishment for the transcript error is wildly disproportionate to the wrong done by Choi.

Gibson said Choi faces crippling debt, few job prospects, little chance to transfer colleges and no means of appeal because of a mistake Gibson characterizes as innocent and small.

Gibson’s filing with the court calls Cornell’s actions “arbitrary and capricious.” (Underlines again by The Voice)

Finding a foothold in America

Tidewater Community College, which Choi attended.

After graduating high school in South Korea, Choi moved immediately to the United States. She had a dream of pursuing medical school.

“Cut off from the life of privilege she previously led in Korea … (Choi) managed to find a way to support herself despite her lack of familiarity with this country and her lack of experience,” Gibson said in court documents.

Choi got a job at a day school, providing her with a path to citizenship. She had to withdraw from Glendale Community College in 2003 because her job asked her to do so to allow her to focus on work, according to Gibson.

She only received “Ws” — withdrawals — on her Glendale transcript. She was taking Intro to Biology, Intro to Business and Honors Calculus/Analytic Geometry.

A few years later, she was accepted to the Tidewater Community College. She retook the classes from Glendale.

“When (Choi) was able to carve out enough time to return to school, she took all of those same classes at Tidewater … and received excellent grades for all of them,” Gibson said in court documents.

She was accepted to Cornell in 2012 and appeared to be on track to graduate with an Ivy League degree. Then things came grinding to a halt.


Accused of cheating

In the spring of 2013, Choi was accused of allowing a fellow student to cheat off her exam in a chemistry class, according to court documents. (Gibson did not make Choi available for an interview, but in court records says she denied the allegation.)

The campus judicial system found Choi guilty. She was given a zero on the exam.

When Choi appealed the cheating accusation, the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell began to investigate statements Choi made during the proceedings, according to a memorandum submitted by Cornell lawyer Nelson Roth.

When reviewing Choi’s past, Dean Boor found that the high school transcript she included with her application to CALS differed from the one she submitted to the College of Human Ecology.

Roth, Cornell’s attorney.

The signatures and fonts on the two transcripts were different, although they were purportedly signed by the same person on the same date, according to Boor’s affidavit and Roth’s memorandum.

“In addition, the grades recorded for at least two of the courses differ on the two transcripts,” Boor said.

Through the National Student Clearinghouse, which verifies degrees and enrollment, Boor and university officials discovered Choi’s missing Glendale transcript, according to Boor’s affidavit.

There were other anomalies on Choi’s application besides the omitted Glendale transcript which CALS did not investigate, Roth noted in his memorandum.

These anomalies were not made public through the court documents, so the amount or severity of Choi’s other application issues is unknown.


‘Retroactively rescinded grants’

On Jan. 29, 2014, Thomas C. Keane, director of Financial Aid for Scholarships and Policy Analysis, sent Choi a letter that said she had “misappropriated university funds,” according to court documents.

As a result, Keane wrote, the office would rescind all the grant money Choi received from Cornell.

For the three semesters Choi attended Cornell, she received $67,805.50 in grant money, including federal monies. She was told to pay it back immediately.

“A hold has also been placed on your transcripts until the balance is paid,” Keane wrote

On February 17, Keane sent another letter informing Choi that internal “collection costs” would be added to Choi’s bill. These collection costs added over $13,000 to Choi’s debt, bringing her bill to $81,391.60.

Only once she does pay this balance would she receive her transcripts, but with negative remarks about her involuntary withdrawal, according to Gibson.


A student, or not?

One of the many issues debated extensively in court documents is if Choi should be considered a student.

It’s not in dispute that Choi was enrolled as a student and had been for three semesters.

But when Choi was forced out of Cornell, administrators said that she could not appeal through the campus judicial system.

Because Choi was wrongfully accepted, Cornell’s Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant says in court documents, she never really was a student.

“I believe this situation is outside the judicial system, though, because it seems like there was a determination that your clients never should have been students,” Grant said in court documents.

“If they were never students they would not be subjected to a disciplinary system that does not apply to non-students.”

From Attorney Gibson’s arguments.

Choi’s attorney says in court records that this line of reasons is ridiculous.

“While it may be appropriate that an accepted student, not yet enrolled in Cornell, might not be afforded the protections of the Campus Code … the same cannot be said of students in their third semester at the College,” Gibson said in court documents.

“At this point, a contract has been entered into, and consideration given and received, and any reasonable person would assume that to be involuntarily dismissed from the school and dishonored on their transcripts … they would have to be afforded the protections guaranteed to all students in the Campus Code.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.