Jason highlighted key moments in his life—his few memories of South Korea, his journey to the United States, earning admission to college, etc., and now, he sat in my office coping with a question neither I, nor most other staff or faculty at CSU Long Beach would ever have to face for ourselves.
What does it mean to be undocumented?
Brought to California as a child, Jason struggled with the daunting reality of a soon-to-be expired visa. Technically, as he explained, he would have to return to South Korea, but he wanted to remain in California, where he had spent most of his life. His story is but one example of the approximately 75,000 undocumented higher education students who are caught within, between, and outside policies that significantly shape the lived experiences of college students.
Not all students’ stories are the same. This was a key takeaway of my time serving as Coordinator of the Dream Success Center at CSU Long Beach. The center served as a one-stop shop for all matters pertaining to undocumented students on campus: in-state tuition (AB 540), state financial aid (California Dream Act), studying abroad as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, scholarship information, healthcare resources, referrals to non-profit organizations for legal advice, and much more. While all students were in one way or another significantly impacted by their legal status (or lack of), it is undeniable that their experiences were not the same. Some faced significantly more challenges.
As a professional, it can be quite frustrating to want to help students but find it impossible to do so. For example, students that came to the United States at an older age than their fellow Dreamers may not meet entry requirements for DACA and may be ineligible for in-state tuition and state financial aid because they did not accumulate enough time enrolled in a California high school. Despite my best efforts, there is almost nothing I can do to help these students pay thousands and thousands of dollars for college when they are ineligible for aid. It was not uncommon for these students to take several semesters off from school to save for tuition and fees, and to spend well over four years in college as a result.
And then, there’s the fear.
Students face a constant fear of changes to immigration policy that may significantly alter their educational and career plans.
After the 2016 election many students wondered about the future of DACA. Students then, and today, face the difficulty of preparing for careers in which they may or may not be eligible to be employed, depending on their future legal status. While most students wonder what they will do after college, undocumented students ineligible for DACA have an added fear: “I cannot use my degree to secure work.”
Despite these challenges, I am proud of the work we were able to accomplish at the Dream Success Center. Through a combination of getting students qualified as AB 540, guiding them through California Dream Act applications, and demystifying financial aid appeals, we quite literally saved undergraduate and graduate students tens of thousands of dollars.
Our efforts to expand awareness of study abroad opportunities for DACA students were especially rewarding. You simply cannot imagine the profound impact studying abroad can have on a student with travel restrictions, particularly those who studied abroad in their countries of birth. I was so pleased when Juan, was able to gain valuable work experience in a field related to his major and was able to study abroad thanks to DACA. However, because Juan was from Colorado, he was ineligible for California’s in-state tuition policy when he arrived at CSU Long Beach – again, every student has a different challenge.
During semester trainings I would host on campus for staff and faculty, I would try to get our campus leaders to get a feel for the myriad of challenges facing our undocumented students. Imagine experiencing college while paying out-of-state tuition. Imagine not having financial aid. Imagine planning for your future career but lacking employment authorization. This is the reality of our undocumented students and it is daunting.
As a college employee, my role was to support students at CSU Long Beach, yet the need for information and resources extended beyond our campus. Many nights I found myself delivering presentations to high school or community college audiences regarding admission, finances, and educational opportunities for undocumented students in college. The need for information is most palpable at these institutions, yet most Dream Resource Centers are located at four-year universities. Their absence is inexcusable.
. During my time at The Beach, I came to a profound understanding of the difficulties students face in pursuing a college degree. Undocumented students are not a monolithic group—some can work in the U.S., pay in-state tuition and receive financial aid, while others can do some or none of the above. Undocumented students carry additional stress, fear, and anxiety on top of the “normal” stressors that come with pursuing a college degree.
This week is Undocumented Student Week of Action and it reminds us of how far we have come, what has been achieved for undocumented college students, and where we still need to go.
Expanding financial aid for undocumented students is imperative as are initiatives to increase the number of resource centers available, especially at community colleges, where they are needed most. During my time leading trainings at CSU Long Beach, I learned that most staff and faculty are more than willing to support these students, but they lack the tools and information to do so. Expanding training opportunities could go a long way towards ensuring that these students are adequately supported.
During this week, let’s be more than cognizant of what it means to be undocumented – Let’s act. Our undocumented youth do not need our speeches or best wishes, they need our action.
Edgar Romo is a current Doctoral student of Higher Education & Organizational Change at the University of California, Los Angeles. He served as Coordinator of the Dream Success Center at CSU Long Beach from November 2014 to July 2016.
All student names are pseudonyms.