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Swarthmore Hosts Inaugural Event on Supporting Undocumented Students

Qian Julie Wang

Keynote speaker Qian Julie Wang '09 read an excerpt from her recently published book, Beautiful Country, about her experience as an undocumented child in America.

Swarthmore College recently hosted the inaugural national convening of SUCCESS (Supporting Undocumented Students' College & Career Equity: Strategies for Success), uniting over 150 policy experts, national advocates, and campus and student leaders from public and private colleges and universities across the U.S.

Held in late March, the event invited attendees to share “promising and transformative practices” in supporting educational and career equity outcomes.  The gathering was first conceptualized by Associate Professor of Educational Studies Elaine Allard '01 and Associate Professor of English Literature Sangina Patnaik, with support from Dulce Ventura '22, Olivia Vazquez Ponce '22, and Stacey Hogge. Additionally, SUCCESS was organized with support from the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration,, and Immigrants Rising.

“These three organizations are such a powerhouse,” Allard told a packed audience. “They know everyone who’s doing every good thing, and they invited them all here — that is, they invited you all here. Our vision and our idea for 10 [or] 15 people around a table has blossomed into something deeper and broader and far more exciting than we ever could have imagined.” 

Undocumented students face an overabundance of barriers when pursuing an undergraduate degree. One example, according to the Migration Policy Institute: Approximately 98,000 undocumented students graduate high school each year in the U.S., but none of them — including DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) recipients — are eligible for federal financial aid for college. In most states, these students are banned from state aid, too. 

In the last few years, the distance between DACA beneficiaries and those not covered by DACA has widened greatly. While DACA recipients in the state of Massachusetts, for instance, are eligible for in-state tuition, their undocumented counterparts are not. But since DACA’s inception in 2012, many universities have dropped the label of “undocumented students,” erroneously referring only to “DACA students.”  

“There are many, many students over the last several years who have been attending post-secondary education without the cover of DACA,” said Roberto G. Gonzales, Richard Perry University Professor of Sociology and Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve had several students who have really struggled to make ends meet, to find the same resources as their peers.” 

This year on college campuses, for the first time in ten years, the majority of undocumented college students don’t have protection protection from DACA. 

“The future of DACA remains uncertain,” said Gonzales. “Clearly we need Congress to act; but at the local level, it’s time to act boldly. We need to think about the policies and practices that have been linked to DACA and de-link them from DACA eligibility.” 

Over the SUCCESS program weekend, speakers covered ways of breaking down financial barriers and bolstering post-graduation pathways and institutional support systems for undocumented students. 

“I’m looking for best practices from all of you, and if we could set that example to mirror what we’re doing [state-wide] in Illinois, it’s truly going to make a difference,” said Tanya Cabrera, assistant vice chancellor for student inclusion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in one panel on institutional support structures. “We could be a united national front for these students and for their families.” 

Throughout the convening, undocumented students from across the country sat in roundtables and panels, sharing their own experiences and making recommendations to attendees. David Tejousha, a student at Dominican University, urged universities to make information for undocumented students more accessible on websites. 

“I’ve seen some examples of schools where you go to their admissions page, and they put it in bold, so you can see it: ‘information for undocumented students’ — like, ‘we see you, we know you’re there, and here’s what you need,’” said Tejousha. “I wish every institution in the U.S. would do that.”  

“What’s good for undocumented students is good for all students,” said Shirley M. Collado, president and CEO of CollegeTrack and president emerita of Ithaca College, to resounding applause. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge how unique and powerful it is to have this assortment of people that [the convening] has brought together, and to have students’ voices center.” 

In one keynote, Qian Julie Wang '09 read an excerpt from her recently published book, Beautiful Country. Wang’s New York Times-bestselling memoir unflinchingly relates her undocumented childhood, and the excerpt described the accompanying hunger she faced as an eight-year-old: “It was not hunger. It was fear. Fear was all I tasted; fear was all I contained; fear was all I was.”

“By the time I made it to Swarthmore, I was already a visa student, but the experience of having been an undocumented child stayed with me; the palpable erasure and lack of support was present at every turn,” Wang said. “I just thank you all for all that you are doing, and all that you are engaging with, your open heart and your open mind. I have never been prouder to be a Swarthmore graduate.” 

Current Swarthmore students, including Rozella Apel '22, volunteered to help facilitate the convention’s many events. 

“As a Latina on campus, sometimes I feel really isolated from some of the realities and struggles that I’m thinking about every day when I’m at home,” said Apel, a peace & conflict studies and educational studies special major from Santa Maria, Calif. “But at this conference, I felt like it was a place and a space to talk about things — not just things that are harmful to my community, but the great work people are doing to fix those harms.”

The inaugural SUCCESS National Convening, the first of its kind, has now created a network of colleges and universities supporting undocumented students, giving national precedence to the needs of undocumented students in higher education.

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