Colombian-born Nathaly Ordonez had practically given up on the idea of attending college after learning her family's visas had expired, leaving her saddled with immigration woes as soon as she graduated from her New Jersey high school.
She eventually got a waitress job, but still didn't earn enough to cover the cost of school or get enough time off work to attend class. When she heard about a tuition-free online university, Ordonez was skeptical but decided to give it a try.
Now, she's studying for her bachelor's degree in business and hopes to someday work for an advertising company.
"When I got in, I was so excited, because I was able to go to college," said Ordonez, who is now 23. "I am going to do what other people do."
Since receiving accreditation last year, the University of the People has seen enrollment grow nearly five-fold to 2,500. While the majority of the students hail from overseas, the number of U.S.-based ones has surged from 72 in 2013 to 950 this year, according to the school, which says a recent survey indicated about a quarter of them are immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
"Everyone deserves higher education," said Shai Reshef, the university's Israeli-born founder, who lives in New York.
Reshef, who previously ran an online university in Europe, started University of the People in 2009 with a global vision, and students hail from all over the world. While the school wasn't focused on immigrants living in the U.S., the low cost and flexible schedule — with weekly course assignments — have proved a draw for many, he said.
Aiming to extend the reach of higher education, the university charges a $50 application fee and a $100 fee for each final exam, making the cost of a bachelor's degree around $4,000. But fees can be waived if students can't pay, and scholarships have been offered to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake and Syrians fleeing to Europe, Reshef said.
In the United States, immigrants who can't attend college because they don't have proper legal papers have also been enrolling. Some students aren't allowed to attend traditional universities because of their immigration status, and others can't afford it because they don't qualify for financial aid.
Karen Soni, who came to the United States from Mexico as a child, said she attended a private university in Texas for a semester but had to drop out after paying nearly $6,000. Five years later, she resumed studying after finding University of the People, and works on assignments each morning before heading to her job at a marketing company and at night after taking care of her 5-year-old son.
"It is a little bit challenging because there is a lot of work, there is a lot of writing to do," said Soni, 27, who lives in a Houston suburb. "One of the advantages is I can do it at my own pace. I can do it at any time."
The university has support from New York University and the Clinton Global Initiative and relies largely on volunteers and minimally paid instructors and free online books. It was accredited in 2014 by the nonprofit Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
Courses are designed by the university and taught by assigned instructors, and students are expected to assess their peers in addition to joining in online discussion boards, submitting papers and writing journals. Degrees are offered in business and computer science.
Some questions may also linger about the prestige of online education programs, but the university's affiliations with traditional schools have helped shore up its image, said William Perez, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University.
And enrolling more U.S. immigrant students — many who have been vocal advocates for immigration reform and pressed the Obama administration to grant them protection from deportation — could end up further strengthening the school in the long run, he said.
"The fact that very capable, high-achieving students are pursuing these options, because they're limited otherwise, and with that credential they may go and accomplish great things, that will certainly continue to raise not only the profile but also the viability of these online options," Perez said.
Even so, the program may not prove to be a panacea. In South Carolina, Venezuelan-born Jesus Bolivar was barred from attending college because of his immigration status. He's now studying computer science at University of the People in the hope of improving his life, but the prospect of getting a better job after graduation is uncertain.
"Even though you can have a degree, you can have a diploma hanging on your wall, you can't work," he said.
Jane Burman-Holtom said she volunteered to teach business courses at the university because she was inspired by the idea of reaching students all over the world. She said she's had pupils from Bhutan, Russia, a slew of African countries and even some American military personnel.
"We're picking up people from all over the United States," said Burman-Holtom, who has a job teaching at an online university in Maryland. "A lot of them really want to make a better life, and that is what everybody is after: a better life."