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Programs and Resources to Support Undocumented Students in their Quest for Higher Education (Part 3)

By Jessica Gallegos

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Social Advocacy Networks

Once students transition into college, it is crucial to ensure that they can be in a supportive environment and have access to resources to further their educational and career interests, as well as to be knowledgeable about their legal status.

One way that can help undocumented students find a more supportive community can be for colleges to establish social advocacy networks. Social advocacy networks encourage students to build relationships with peers who are in similar situations, connecting undocumented students with each other. While the goals of each network will vary, many will enable its members to become more aware of their rights and resources available to them.

In a case study on advocacy networks at a four-year public university in California, a researcher was able to document the intricacies of how effective such a community can be, as well as the struggles they faced. Using interviews, observations, and data analysis, it was found that participants, who consisted of mostly undocumented and Latina/o students, felt that the program “benefited them in navigating federal, state and institutional barriers that threatened their continued access to higher education” (Hallett 2013). The students would organize political events and rallies to call for immigration reform and provide training and empowerment to also fight for “equal access to affordable higher education” (Hallett 2013).

A problem that the group faced was with regards to inclusivity. Despite having hoped that they could include a more diverse student body in order to break the perception that immigration not only involved Latina/os, some meetings that they held would alternate between English and Spanish. In addition, some members of the group believed that non-undocumented students did not fully understand their struggles, and worried about including them. Another struggle that members faced was a sense of competition for the limited number of scholarships that the university provided to undocumented students, which could threaten “group unity” and friendships (Hallett 2013). Yet, despite this competitiveness, the group was still able to celebrate individual successes collectively.

Another study followed eight undocumented students at a large public university that had a commitment to help others gain access to higher education. Students “expressed the importance of sympathetic individuals and organizations” and “emphasized the significance of mentors and role models” that allowed for them to be successful (Borjian 2018). The researcher noted that this type of social advocacy serves as a “strategy to gain the resources needed to overcome barriers,” allowing them to build bonds and facilitate the sharing of information about resources (Borjian 2018).

Both of these studies mentioned the limited knowledge or role that some campus officials can have, at times not informing or being aware of existing resources that can greatly benefit undocumented students. Some campus officials may not have an understanding of the struggles that these students face, making it difficult for them to properly support undocumented students. Therefore, a third program that can be beneficial to implement is ally training.

One such example is a program that was implemented at a public university in Arizona called DREAMzone. DREAMzone provided institutional agents with “awareness, knowledge, and skills for responding to the presence and needs of undocumented students” in the form of a four hour professional development training with four goals: “(a) awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings regarding undocumented students, (b) knowledge of laws and policies affecting the experiences of undocumented students, (c) direct contact with undocumented students, and (d) skills, practices, and resources for working with undocumented students” (Cisneros and Cadenas 2017). Participants for this study were given pre- and post-assessments to measure the program’s effect on their self-efficacy and competency with regards to working with undocumented students.

The study reported that institutional agents felt more competent at working with undocumented students, even eight months after the training (Cisneros and Cadenas 2017). The self-efficacy measure also improved in the short-term, although findings were not significant at the eight-month measure. The study noted that the self-efficacy measure may have been so due to Arizona’s “immigrant-hostile sociopolitical context,” making it difficult for a four-hour program on its own to “counteract” such an environment (Cisneros and Cadenas 2017). Overall, the results were encouraging in showing that by providing these learning experiences, it is possible to better prepare institutional agents to better serve undocumented students.

Ally Trainings

Another study also found promising results with ally training. The study, conducted at a large research university in Oregon, held four ally training sessions for faculty and staff, seeking to improve participant self-efficacy in working with undocumented students. Participants were given pre- and post-training surveys to create a measure for self-efficacy. The training had three phases, which included creating deeper understanding, building agency and skills, and taking action and changing the system, with the last phase including the ability to develop an action plan on how to better support undocumented students. Ultimately, participants reported higher levels of self-efficacy following the training and had a better understanding of the struggles that undocumented students face (McWhirter et al. 2021). In addition, participants pledged to take different actions, ranging from reviewing eligibility criteria for financial aid to committing to staying informed about resources for DACA students (McWhirter et al. 2021).

Undocumented Student Resource Centers

In considering the implementation and use of these programs, resource centers can aid in implementing all of these initiatives. Resource centers, often created by student-led movements, tend to work in collaboration with other on-campus groups and off-campus organizations to support undocumented students. They may generally provide support in all aspects of college, ranging from applying for financial aid to finding internships to seeking legal aid. Some resource centers will also provide support for the local community, such as by advising undocumented college applicants during high school or by holding immigration workshops. Therefore, the creation of such spaces on college campuses can be invaluable.

A study was conducted on undocumented student resource centers (USRC) from across the country, seeking to ascertain how they came to be on campus and how they were viable support structures. In the end, out of 59 USRCs identified nation-wide, 49 participated, with the qualitative study using interviews to gain information (Cisneros and Valdivia 2020). The study found that the development of these centers was often the result of undocumented student mobilization, with task forces commonly recommending their creation and funding. The establishment of USCRs was crucial in collecting data about undocumented students, as it helped support the call for in-state tuition policies (Cisneros and Valdivia 2020).

Another study further mentions the benefits that undocumented students receive from having USCRs on campus. USCRs can be viewed as a “safe space” for students, in which they can build community and receive specialized attention (Tapia-Fuselier 2021). It is also mentioned that USCRs tend to become the “point of contact on campus for, ‘anything and everything [related to] undocumented students,’” collaborating with other offices to help them properly adhere to undocumented student policies and to be more inclusive (Tapia-Fuselier 2021). Therefore, the creation of USCRs often has an impact on the overall college community.

However, USCRs face numerous challenges in their ability to function and provide adequate resources. In particular, USCRs often lack adequate funding and human resources. The study mentioned that many centers have to operate on small budgets, compared to those of other identity-based centers (Tapia-Fuselier 2021). Further, this can affect the ability to staff the resources, which can limit the ability in which the centers engage with the community (Tapia-Fuselier 2021).

Conclusion and Recommendations

With the challenges to immigration policy that continue to persist, it is important now more than ever to be able to support undocumented college students so that they can succeed in their education. The everyday struggles they endure occur in addition to the difficulties that they face in being able to find and support academic and career opportunities, making them a particularly vulnerable population. This heightens the need to provide adequate programs to facilitate college enrollment and to promote an inclusive and supportive learning environment. Yet, solely implementing one program or resource is not enough, as addressing this need rather requires various elements. Therefore, implementing the use of pre-college counseling, social advocacy networks, ally trainings, and the creation of resources centers together best helps students along their college careers.

Institutions, both in secondary and higher education, should work proactively to ensure resources are available and create awareness about them. This should include making training available to staff, including in admissions and financial aid, to provide them with knowledge of changing DACA policies and those students’ rights and resources. While USCRs can sometimes help with this aspect, institutions should take the initiative to make their policies inclusive of undocumented students from the beginning, ensuring that funding and/or staff, if necessary, is then available to carry out such initiatives. As members of these institutions, undocumented students also deserve the equal opportunity to actively participate and feel welcomed, regardless of their status.


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