A voice for immigrants: Undocumented college students building support for community

  • JERREY ROBERTS Sara Martinez, right, speaks as Patricia Garcia listens during a meeting of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, Dec. 17 in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC. Both are undocumented immigrants who are students at the college. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • JERREY ROBERTS Mount Holyoke College students Sara Martinez, left, and Patricia Garcia talk in the Unity Space at Blanchard Campus Center, Dec. 17. Both are undocumented immigrants who are students at the college. They lead a group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • JERREY ROBERTS Mount Holyoke College students Arielle Derival, from left, Sara Martinez, Patricia Garcia and Rosalyn Leban talk Dec. 17 in the Unity Space at Blanchard Campus Center. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • Patricia Garcia, left, and Sara Martinez talk in the Unity Space at Blanchard Campus Center at Mount Holyoke College. Both are undocumented immigrants who are students at the college. They lead a group called the Undocumented Immigrant Alliance. Garcia graduated from Mount Holyoke this year. JERREY ROBERTS PHOTOS

  • From left, Gerry Rivadeneira and Arielle Derival, members of the Undocumented Immigrant Alliance at Mount Holyoke College, speak during a meeting of the group.

  • JERREY ROBERTS Patricia Garcia, who is a member of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, speaks during a meeting of the group Dec. 17 in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • JERREY ROBERTS Gerry Rivadeneira, right, speaks as Amelia Gonzalez Pinal listens during a meeting of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, Dec. 17 in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • JERREY ROBERTS Rosalyn Leban, left, speaks as Patricia Garcia, center, and Sara Martinez listen during a meeting of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, Dec. 17 in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC. Garcia and Martinez are undocumented immigrants who are students at the college. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • JERREY ROBERTS Hannah Rickard, far right, speaks as Rosalyn Leban, from left, Patricia Garcia, Sara Martinez, Arielle Derival and Maria Montero listen during a meeting of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, Dec. 17 in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC. Garcia and Martinez are undocumented immigrants who are students at the college. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • JERREY ROBERTS Members of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, meet Dec. 17 in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC. JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

  • Arielle Derival speaks during a meeting of a Mount Holyoke College student-run group called Undocumented Immigrant Alliance, Dec. 17 in the Eliana Ortega Cultural Center at MHC.

  • JERREY ROBERTS JERREY ROBERTS—JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 7/5/2016 4:34:13 PM

In 2014, Patty Garcia left behind her East Los Angeles home, her friends and her family and boarded an airplane to Massachusetts. She didn’t realize that she was also leaving an environment that provided support to undocumented students, like her, in a way that her new home would not.

The gender studies major was warned by peers that it would be a culture shock moving to New England, but she assumed she would find solidarity at a women’s college that strives to empower a diverse community of students. What she found instead was that many of her peers — and her professors — didn’t know undocumented immigrants were allowed to attend college at all.

“I expected Massachusetts to be this progressive state because that’s what I’d always heard back home” she said. “But when I got here, that didn’t match up.”

Garcia, 28, came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 7 years old. Then she led a mostly normal life until she discovered the difficulties of applying to four-year colleges without a Social Security number. She attended a local community college on and off for six years, where she joined “Students for Equal Rights,” an organization that provides undocumented students with access to group support, scholarship opportunities and transfer advising.

With that organization’s assistance, Garcia was able to graduate and apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a two-year work permit that provides a Social Security number to those who enter the country unauthorized before their 16th birthday, and in 2014, Garcia received a full-tuition scholarship from Mount Holyoke College to pursue a four-year degree.

But upon her arrival to Mount Holyoke, Garcia discovered that the institutions created to support undocumented students that had been well established at her community college in California were nowhere to be found. Being older and more experienced than other students like her, she took it upon herself to create a group that will help teach the school how to best accommodate undocumented students.

Taking the lead

With elite private colleges in Massachusetts offering generous financial aid to undocumented students, the situation at Mount Holyoke is no different from many other local colleges, experts say. Undocumented students are arriving to find the resources they need are lacking, so they are organizing support groups to advocate for their unique needs. At Mount Holyoke, that group is the Undocumented Immigrant Alliance (UIA), founded by Garcia and her peers.

A few months into her first semester at the college, Garcia began to wonder if she was really the only undocumented student at Mount Holyoke. She and classmate Gerry Carolina Rivadeneira decided to put up fliers around campus asking any students who knew they were undocumented to meet at one of the school’s cultural houses. On the night she scheduled the meeting, Garcia awaited students’ arrival, unsure whether any would show up. To her surprise, seven women walked through the door.

Among them was junior Sara Martinez.

Martinez, a politics major who fled Colombia, joined Garcia as the UIA’s co-chair. Over time, the two women and other UIA members began approaching faculty with recommendations for how the school could improve its approach to working with undocumented students. They met with Latino studies Professor David Hernandez, who offered to come to a few meetings and share his research on immigration and deportation.

Hernandez worked extensively with undocumented students when he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 2006 to 2012. He said at that university, there were hundreds of undocumented students who formed student groups similar to Garcia’s Students for Equal Rights and the UIA to talk about the issues they faced — like the difficulty of paying for school and getting scholarships. Those groups were then able to mobilize to help the school understand cases of its members.

“It was the undocumented students that trained the university on how to address them, how to talk about them and how to fund them,” Hernandez remembered.

Student group’s reach grows

Garcia and Martinez also found an ally in Mount Holyoke’s Associate Dean Rene Davis, who became an unofficial advisor for the group. Davis was able to help the students reach out to different departments on campus to discuss their suggestions. For example, the UIA met with the school’s Financial Services Department to discuss the practice of accepting undocumented students as international students.

The international characterization is one that many private institutions, including Harvard University, use to accept undocumented students. Because undocumented students are not eligible for any form of federal financial aid, it is difficult for them to afford schooling, especially at public universities, where access to non-federal financial assistance can be extremely limited.

Around 20 states, including California, have adopted policies to accept undocumented students who have DACA to public schools and offer them in-state tuition if they attended high school in that state. But many undocumented students are low-income, and they can’t afford to attend these schools even with the in-state tuition.

Private schools, on the other hand, are not as restricted in the aid they are able to offer students — they can offer institutional financial aid in addition to federal aid. This makes them more ideal for many undocumented students struggling to pay for college.

This institutional aid is divided into two categories: domestic for U.S. citizens and international for those arriving from countries outside of the U.S. Because undocumented students are not technically domestic students, private colleges, like Mount Holyoke, will group undocumented students with international students once they are accepted and offer them international student institutional aid. This allows undocumented students access to some form of financial aid and helps to supplement some of the funds they might have received if they had access to federal assistance.

But while it is an effective means of accepting the students, it can be confusing for undocumented immigrants, many of whom are first generation college students. It can also contribute to an undercount of a campus’s domestic diversity numbers, Hernandez said.

Schools making changes

Some schools in Massachusetts are changing the way they classify undocumented students. In April 2015, Tufts University announced a new policy to treat undocumented students as regular domestic applicants in the financial process and meet 100 percent of these students’ demonstrated financial need. This development is largely a result of the efforts of Tufts’ student organization, “United for Immigrant Justice,” who rallied at the school for increased support and recognition.

Mount Holyoke has not changed the way undocumented students are classified when they receive aid, but the college has now established a specific code for undocumented students which will prevent them from getting clumped in college databases with international students.

Before, undocumented students would get emails and updates meant for international students. Now, as soon as undocumented students share their status with the school, they will be added to a list of students accessible to college departments that can be used to target undocumented students when they see events or information that might be of interest to them.

Garcia said this new coding system “can be an amazing tool if departments actually use it to specifically create resources for undocumented students.”

Since the establishment of the UIA last year, Mount Holyoke has begun to provide further forms of support and recognition. In the fall, Davis helped them find a way to invite the college’s immigration lawyer to a UIA meeting so the students could ask him questions regarding their legal status.

Most recently, the students have succeeded in creating a Community Resource Center in the upper level of Mount Holyoke’s Blanchard Campus Center for undocumented and first-generation college students. They hope it will allow the students to have a space of their own on campus where they can share literature about immigration and engage in meaningful conversations about the shared challenges they face.

“I think I always knew we had an undocumented scene on campus, but I didn’t really give enough weight to how different their experience would be,” Davis said.

Although the college has developed policies to help undocumented students gain admission, the funds available for these students are limited. The college receives between 25 and 40 applications from undocumented students a year, but they usually can’t accept more than a couple of them. Currently, there are fewer than 10 undocumented students enrolled at Mount Holyoke.

“Our challenge is working to figure out how we can support as many students as possible,” said Gail Berson, the vice president for enrollment at Mount Holyoke. “We have to think about how we can leverage our money and make sure we can pay attention to every population, while recognizing that we’ll never be able to go far enough.”

Help in college admissions

Part of Garcia and Martinez’s mission is to help students who are starting the college admissions process. Although 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school every year, the number that go on to college is between 7,000 and 13,000, according to Educators for Fair Consideration, an organization that focuses on improving undocumented students’ access to attend higher education. This is largely because of the lack of information available for prospective undocumented students attempting to navigate the admissions process.

Last year, the UIA was able to work with the financial services department to update its website with information about the college’s policies and expectations for undocumented applicants.

Garcia and Martinez also hope to help undocumented high schoolers in the Pioneer Valley. Last fall they started working with Mount Holyoke’s Career-Based Learning program to go to a high school in Amherst and mentor four undocumented students currently in the midst of the college admissions process.

At Mount Holyoke, Garcia said she has noticed that more students and faculty are engaged in the helping the UIA reach its goals.

“This semester students are even coming up to me and telling me, ‘I’m writing my thesis on this,’” she said. “People are talking about undocumented students and immigration so much more.”

Davis said she was pleased to see the UIA “creating a voice” for a community that previously stayed hidden because of a perception that they were “trying to take away from others.”

“There’s just so much negative stigma connected to perceptions about why someone is undocumented,” Davis said. “People imagine immigrants sneaking into this country and trying to take away resources and support structures. And when people have that impression, it makes it hard for a student to identify as an undocumented student.”

In 2015, UIA launched a student campaign that included a weeklong exhibit in the school’s campus center called “I Exist.” They set up a table in the building and decorated it with books, movies and art pieces. The group also hosted several film screenings and sponsored lectures by immigration professors on campus.

Now, they are beginning to work with other immigrant rights groups within the Five College community, such as Hampshire’s Immigrant Solidarity Network and Smith’s Organizing for Undocumented Students Rights. They hope to create a Five College resource center where undocumented students in the area can meet in solidarity and share their experiences.

Garcia, who was among the 550 students to graduate Mount Holyoke this year, says she feels extremely gratified knowing she has created something at the college that will positively aid undocumented students in following their dreams.

“I didn’t necessarily come to Mount Holyoke to create change, but I did. And now that I am leaving I am in disbelief of how much UIA has done,” she said. “I hope that when I leave, UIA will continue to push the boundaries with the administration and make sure that we keep having hard but necessary conversations to create change for future undocumented students.”




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