SPRING HILL — It was a proud moment when Amber Moller spoke to her senior class last month as valedictorian.
She had worked hard to reach the pinnacle at Central High. By all accounts, she had worked hard from the moment she began kindergarten at Spring Hill Elementary.
So it came as a surprise this summer when the University of Florida came up with a new label for the Philippine-American with the 4.6 GPA: out-of-stater.
According to state regulations, it didn't matter that Amber had spent every moment of her education in Hernando County. What mattered was that she was still considered a dependent, and her father had moved to Virginia.
University officials declined to comment on the situation.
The Moller family came unglued in 2005, when Amber's mother died of multiple sclerosis and her father soon left in search of work. Amber had been born in Virginia, but had lived in Hernando since age 4. It was her home and she wanted to stay put and make her teachers proud.
So she lived with her older brother and they survived on his Applebee's salary, with some additional help from their father.
"My father filed me as his dependent on his taxes, even though I was living here," she said during an interview at the home of her boyfriend's grandparents. "I wouldn't say he contributed 50 percent, but he did contribute some."
To be fair, Amber was never sure she wanted to attend a Florida college. She had her sights set on the Ivy League and the famed political science and economics departments at Columbia University in New York City.
She didn't make the cut there, but she did get accepted at Barnard College, which allows students to cross-register for courses across the street at Columbia.
But her problems weren't over. Her father was skeptical of the financial aid application she sent him, and refused to sign. She missed the deadline for scholarships.
That's when she got interested in the University of Florida, her backup school. But the residency struggle persuaded her to seek the extra money to attend Barnard, which costs $52,000 a year for tuition, fees and living costs.
"It was only going to be $15,000 to $20,000 extra to go to Barnard, compared to the out-of-state tuition (in Florida,)" she said. "I just got so exhausted dealing with UF's office of admissions and financial aid. It wasn't worth it."
That's a pity, said Jackie Major, head of the counseling department at Central High. She made calls to the university on Amber's behalf, to no avail.
"I think it's crummy," Major said. "The girl has been here since kindergarten. She is a fantastic student, one of the best ever, and just a nice, decent person.
"She just got caught in a really bad situation," she added. "I feel nervous for her because the finances (at Barnard) are so steep, even for the first year."
So far, Amber has taken out federal loans, and her grandparents have offered $15,000 as a much-needed graduation gift. Her father is considering co-signing another loan, with the understanding that she would pay it back.
That still leaves a big gap. Amber hopes to find additional scholarships or grants — plus lots of babysitting jobs — in time to start classes this fall. With her grades and low family income, she has a good shot to get a full scholarship for her last three years of college if she can just find the money for freshman year.
Central High is pulling for her, even if it means saying goodbye to a hometown girl.
"She can really push her way when she needs to," Major said. "You would think the colleges in Florida would want to keep her. It's a loss to the state, is all I can say."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 584-5537.