By Jessica Silver-Sharp, San Mateo Community College Federation of Teachers

When I first wrote about undocumented students in October 2017, I couldn’t have foreseen how things could change so much in less than three years. Two out of three of our campus Dream Centers in the San Mateo Community College District were established during this time when young “Dreamers” were forming a national youth movement and “coming out” across the country. Then, a majority of the hundreds of undocumented students on campus enjoyed legal protections under DACA.

Now the majority are not eligible for DACA and the significant legal protections, work opportunities, and unemployment benefits that status affords. For these reasons, more than ever, undocumented students form our most vulnerable student population.

 Because of the pandemic and campus closures, the program service coordinators at our Dream Centers — with major support from faculty allies and administrators — have transitioned to serve our undocumented students remotely. I wanted to get a better sense of the challenges Dream Center staff and their students are facing, and learn more about how faculty members might increase awareness, support and understanding in this new landscape.

Undocumented students focus on supporting their families

Dream Center staff report that the pandemic has truly revealed the priorities of these students in ways many of us don’t realize. Our undocumented students, who are more likely to live in multi-generational households, report they are working more to support themselves and immigrant parents who lack unemployment benefits. Some have taken new jobs doing essential services. Many have also found themselves responsible for the care and homeschooling of younger siblings, as parents lack the benefit of an education or language to support their children with academic tasks. Some have withdrawn from classes.

Food and housing insecurity and a political climate that continues to inspire fear of deportation for students and their family members have been exacerbated by COVID. Even before the pandemic, students reported widespread anxiety resulting from misinformation about the Public Charge Rule policy and the Supreme Court’s looming decision on DACA.

Now students report a host of new and significant challenges, including staying healthy, but also household competition for internet connection, the difficulty of finding a quiet space to study, anxiety about the transfer process, and the knowledge that money saved for university is now being used for basic necessities.

From a cultural standpoint, many students are also unaccustomed or uncomfortable negotiating with faculty — for assignment changes, for example — no matter how valid the reasons. Staff report that these factors have produced anxiety levels among undocumented students that are unprecedentedly high.

Dream Centers work to maintain student support

For the Dream Centers, among the biggest challenges is finding ways to continue, or rather recreate, a sense of community for students accustomed to having a physical space on campus that feels safe. For Cañada College students, Undocu Club meetings are on hiatus but students keep in touch. At College of San Mateo’s Multicultural and Dream Center, community building continues at student-led weekly Zoom hangouts where the focus is on social justice and related issues.

A parallel challenge has been continued referrals to basic but essential services and resources. The Multicultural and Dream Center uses a robust case management approach that helps connect students with academic counselors, retention specialists, and other campus resources.

Meanwhile, triage between center staff and student services specialists — and referrals to free campus legal clinics and local organizations — take place throughout the district. Staff proactively check in with students to make sure they are safe, and reach out to matriculating students as well. Each Dream Center does things a little differently, but for all, core program services remain in place. What’s changed is outreach.

At Skyline College, Pamela Ortiz Cerda, a Bay Area activist who also serves on the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Dreamers Advisory Group, makes and takes personal calls from students at all times of the day and evening, including weekends when students return home from work. She is trained and experienced with DACA renewal applications — she assists students and their family members from all three campuses through a complex process that includes several long forms and an additional application to non-profit funders to cover DACA renewal fees of nearly $500.

Ortiz Cerda also encourages her students to participate in mental health and wellness virtual sessions offered by the non-profit organization, Immigrants Rising, twice weekly. In their work “to get resources out there,” the Dream Centers publish frequent email newsletters with resources for food and other aid. They also reach students through Dream Center Instagram accounts.

Many AFT faculty members have become more aware of the needs of our undocumented students by participating in this year’s Undocumented Student Action Week events, which included an astounding breadth of programs. Nationally, AFT’s platform of support for these students stems partly from an understanding that our current students are our nation’s future teachers. How can faculty members help?

What do undocumented students need?

  • A safe space to share experiences and ideas in a two-way dialog with faculty who are sensitive to not “outing” them to their classmates.
  • Faculty who are aware of laws and resources. Some students have been misinformed about their options, especially regarding DACA, as well as state and federal benefits.
  • Guidance that can increase their confidence and help them build resilience. Not sympathy.
  • Assignments that don’t exclude or harm. We can’t assume our students can vote to make political change, or want to debate (or be debated) when immigration is the research assignment topic.

What can faculty do?

  • Contact your campus Dream Centers about any student you think needs support. Dream Center staff will reach out to students in person by phone. (If you’re unsure of their status, it’s okay; immigrant or low-income students who are not undocumented are also served.)
  • Stay informed about campus and community resources by subscribing to Dream Center newsletters.
  • Join your campus Dream Center Task Force of staff and faculty members who are continuing to hold regular virtual meetings by Zoom during this crisis.
  • Show solidarity by donating a part of your federal stimulus check. Undocumented students did not receive these and are not eligible for CARES Act funds.

Postscript: Special thanks to faculty counselor Sylvia Aguirre-Alberto, who retires this month following decades of service to our undocumented student community. A student herself in the college Readiness Program at College of San Mateo during the 1970s, her counseling work has continued the spirit of her early efforts to create a welcoming community and safe zone on campus for our neediest students. She quotes her mentor at the college, Adrian Orozco, when she reminds us, the first step to wisdom is kindness.

About the author

Jessica Silver-Sharp, a librarian and archivist at Skyline College, is secretary for the San Mateo Community College Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1493.