Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 18, 2015

Understanding and Supporting Undocumented Students at the University of Washington

An interview with Gabriel Gallardo and Marisa Herrera outlines challenges undocumented students face, support available and how faculty can help

Gabriel Gallardo and Marisa Herrera at the Leadership Without Borders Center.
Photo: Jill Reddish.

An interview with Dr. Gabriel Gallardo, Interim Vice President for Minority Affairs and Interim Vice Provost for Diversity, and Marisa Herrera, Executive Director of Community Building and Inclusion, Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity:

Q: How many undocumented students are at the UW, and what are their needs?

Gabriel Gallardo: There are probably 150-200 undocumented students at the UW. A student is considered undocumented if he or she is not a legal permanent resident and does not possess a current green card, visa or other form of legal documentation. Our exact population is difficult to pin down because there are many challenges in getting accurate information. Since 2003, when House Bill 1079 became state law and allowed eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, the UW became home to even more of these students.

Undocumented students face a lot of fear and remain one of the most underserved populations at colleges and universities across the country. They don’t share their status with faculty or advisers and sometimes they won’t even tell their peers. This can be terribly isolating, and they remain unaware of the resources we have to help them. This group of students is one of our demographics. Excellence by definition is inclusive, and so our goal of “inclusive excellence” includes working with and for our undocumented students.

Terms to know:

  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): Effective 2012, allows qualified undocumented students to apply for a work permit
  • Real Hope Act: Effective 2014, allows eligible undocumented students to access the State Need Grant program
  • WASFA: The form undocumented students fill out to apply for the State Need Grant

Q: How does the UW provide support?

GG: Supporting this population requires faculty and staff who have access to a large variety of information and resources paired with a fundamental awareness of how to be an effective and sensitive ally for these students. So we take a holistic approach — from training academic support staff in access, retention and financial aid to connecting students with housing services, health and wellness, and peer support groups.

Marisa Herrera and Magdalena Fonseca from the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center have been spearheading this work for over 10 years, but until recently, much of it was under the radar — understandable, given the importance of protecting the identity of undocumented students.

In April 2015, UW leadership wrote a letter for the National Institutions Coming Out Day affirming support for the right of undocumented youth to seek education at our state’s public universities. We as a university took a significant step towards making public our support and commitment for undocumented students — and to provide faculty and staff with the necessary training and resources to fully support this population.

Q: What is the Leadership Without Borders (LWB) Center and what happens there?

Marisa Herrera: The LWB Center offers undocumented students a defined space on campus where they can feel they belong, whether they are doing homework, using our textbook lending library or just hanging out. It’s where students can go for referrals and information about services, or simply talk to someone about their worries and concerns. We are even starting quarterly leadership development workshops specifically for this population, which makes this model unique in the nation.

Our goal is to build a comprehensive pathway to support undocumented students so that as more students are receiving aid and deciding where to enroll, they will see the UW as a worthwhile investment and feel confident about coming here.

Q: What role do faculty play? What can faculty do to help?

MH: Many times, faculty are the first point of contact between the UW and a student, and a lot can depend on just one interaction. Think about an undocumented student who wants to go to medical school and who asks a professor for advice. If that faculty member isn’t well-resourced in campus support for undocumented students and how to navigate it, an opportunity has been lost for that student. We’re trying to prevent missed opportunities, so we work with faculty and staff across campus to raise awareness about where to direct students to the resources that can make all the difference for them. Faculty can also take our Undocu Ally training or donate books to our LWB Textbook Lending Library.

Q: What creates an unwelcoming environment compared to a welcoming one?

MH: Everything from the language used in an application or a syllabus to having a sticker on your wall that says this is a safe space. It’s important for our students to know that they don’t have to be in the shadows and that, whether they choose to disclose their status or not, they will be supported. For example, we’re conscientious about circumstances where a social security number is required. Graduate Opportunities & Minority Achievement Program (GO-MAP) worked with The Graduate School so that undocumented students can fill out that application in a manner appropriate for their status. We’ve also had a student tell us how empowered she felt when one of her professors had a non-discrimination clause in the syllabus that included “national origin and citizenship status.” That requires a small effort but can potentially make a big difference for a student, both inside and outside of the classroom.

GG: We want to increase awareness, especially about terminology. We don’t expect everyone to become an expert in the complex politics or changing realities of undocumented students and their families, but we are here to provide guidance. These students are talented and do the work. We know they can succeed if they have the access and support they need.