Guest presenters:

  • Dr. Brett Kemker, Regional Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Student Success, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus
  • Dr. Cynthia Carvajal, Director for Immigrant Student Success, City University of New York
  • Joseph Mendoza-Martinez, Student, Rutgers University
  • Luz Corcuera, Executive Director, UnidosNow

FCAN host: Charleita Richardson, Executive Director

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Watch the recording and read key takeaways from Part 1.

On February 8, FCAN hosted a webinar highlighting some of the ways higher ed institutions can help undocumented students achieve education beyond high school by removing barriers and creating inviting communities that encourage them to thrive.

According to a 2020 study by New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education, there are an estimated 454,000 undocumented students in postsecondary education across the U.S.

One of those students — Joseph Mendoza-Martinez of Rutgers University — shared his personal experiences with the college-going process, including how his complex undocumented status resulted in some unconventional solutions.

“When you’re working with undocumented students, you have to think outside the box,” Joseph noted. “Actually, just take the box away altogether because our journeys are not linear.”

Getting buy-in at every level

Florida ranks third in the U.S. in the number of undocumented students in higher education, trailing only California and Texas. About 42,000 undocumented college students live in Florida, according to the same 2020 study, making up about 3% of the state’s higher education student population.

Dr. Brett Kemker, Regional Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Student Success at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, said it is important for any campus community to be welcoming to undocumented students at every level.

“That’s very dependent on faculty and staff being on-board, aware, and understanding, but it also depends on your students,” Kemker said. In 2019, the Student Government at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus presented the administration with a resolution in support of undocumented students. “It speaks volumes to how receptive our community is to these undocumented students.”

Kemker also spoke about how his institution has engaged with a nonprofit in the area to better serve this segment of the student population.

“It’s unreasonable for us to assume that we could have the knowledge base of being in the trenches with these undocumented students in our community,” Kemker said of the university’s partnership with UnidosNow, a Manatee County-based nonprofit that seeks to elevate the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration, and civic engagement.

Luz Corcuera, Executive Director of UnidosNow, said she is grateful to partner with a postsecondary institution that has expressed an interest in understanding the unique circumstances of undocumented students.

“USF has taken the lead and really opened its doors because they know these students add so much value,” Corcuera said.

Four ways to be more welcoming to undocumented students

Dr. Cynthia Carvajal is the Director for Immigrant Student Success at City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban university system in the U.S.

Carvajal shared information about some of the resources and programs available to undocumented students at CUNY, but also offered four ways those supports could be applied anywhere:

  • Reliable Knowledge: Stay current on resources and potential impacts on students at various intersections. This includes policies that are not explicitly immigration-focused.
  • Normalizing Inclusion: Everyone, regardless of immigration status, should know about resources for undocumented students. This can be accomplished through posters, workshops, e-mail blasts, etc.
  • Sustainable Structures: It is important to create and maintain something that can outlive your advocacy. This can be accomplished through yearly events, scholarship access, memos to reiterate policy, etc.
  • Identifying a Network: Requires folks at all levels and intersections to be engaged, including community organizations, student-facing groups, and higher ed administration.

Carvajal also said that it is important to include undocumented students in outreach efforts targeted at other underrepresented student populations.

“If you’re reaching out to low-income or first-generation students, the assumption should be that among those students there will be undocumented students,” Carvajal said. “How can you incorporate information that is relatable and accessible to them as well?”

An undocumented student’s perspective

Joseph Mendoza-Martinez arrived in the U.S. at age 6 from Honduras unable to speak a word of English. He is currently studying health administration at Rutgers.

“Throughout my education, I didn’t see myself as different from other students until it came time to apply for college in my senior year,” Joseph said.  “I was very excited, but also very confused.”

Joseph enrolled at a local community college and recalled a message he received from an international student advisor.

“She said, ‘I understand your situation, and I will help you,’” Joseph said. “That was the first time I encountered someone who understood and was willing to work with my status.”

He also recounted some moments of financial hardship, which resulted in Joseph getting his meals from a food pantry on campus and realizing there were some helpful campus resources at his disposal. Those resources include student wellness centers, food pantries, clothing drives, health services, and more.

“A lot of undocumented students don’t even know about these resources on campus, or they don’t think they are eligible for them,” Joseph said. “It’s very important that colleges really market these resources, especially to undocumented students.”

It’s also important that colleges don’t make undocumented students feel unwelcome before they’ve even set foot on campus. While recently applying for a graduate program, Joseph read that it was only available to permanent residents and U.S. citizens. After a bit more research, Joseph eventually discovered the program was also open to undocumented students.

“We have to remember that a lot of undocumented students are used to hearing, ‘No,’ and a lot of us come from a culture where you respect authority and don’t question it,” he said. “I really encourage colleges to evaluate their websites and strip away any language that isn’t equitable.”

Show Notes

To learn more about helping undocumented students achieve education beyond high school — or to view the recording and download the presentation — take advantage of these resources:

Developing an UndocuSupport System handout (Pre-Health Dreamers)
Undocumented Students in Higher Education (New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education)

Be sure to visit our Past Webinars page for access to recordings and downloadable material from FCAN’s previous presentations.

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