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  • Writer's picturegina garcia

5 Ways Servingness as an HSI Includes Undocumented Students

and if You're Not Actively Doing this, You're Probably Doing it Wrong.

In this month’s ¿Qué pasa, HSIs? Blog, I am joined by Linda Alberty Layhew, President & Founder of CULTIVATE EXCELLENCE CONSULTING, to offer advice on extending servingness to undocumented students. I (Linda) have gained information over many years from my personal and professional experiences. I have also collaborated with my colleagues who serve undocumented and Latinx college students.

So you are a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI)? Congratulations! But do your servingness efforts include undocumented/DACAmented college students? They should. To learn how to support this population of students, HSIs can look at how higher education institutions across the U.S. support their access and success. Some institutions have had to wrestle with the political disposition of their institutions and boards of trustees before having conversations about undocumented students. And those most committed to serving undocumented students have sometimes been criminalized in the process. In recent times, however, state-mandated legislation focused on proactive measures to support student success regardless of citizenship status has afforded colleges and universities across the U.S. the opportunity to develop comprehensive care and support, with many realizing that institutional political climate has no bearing on the reality that undocumented students attend college every day, and often in the shadows.

It is estimated that nearly 427,000 undocumented/DACAmented students attend college in the U.S. Depending on the state of enrollment, access and financial support varies with 22 states and Washington DC allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and 17 providing access to state financial aid. Some of the most supportive, or “undocumented friendly” states also have the most number of HSIs including California, Texas, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, and New Jersey. This is good news for HSIs in these states as they seek to include undocumented students in their servingness efforts.

My colleagues and I (Gina), argue that servingness includes the structural supports put in place at HSIs. Structures for serving undocumented students could include financial aid itself as well as financial aid advisors on campus who are welcoming, supportive, and affirming and who know the intricacies of the state and federal legislation that can help or hinder access and persistence. Stephen Santa-Ramirez found that some of the most relevant college and university structures for serving undocumented students include supportive and affirming faculty, culturally-based and ethnically-based student organizations, and campus departments and programs that holistically support undocumented students.

We also contend that “indicators of serving” are a part of servingness, which include the experiences that undocumented students have on campus, both positive and negative. If we were to survey the thousands of undocumented students nationally on their experiences and the extent to which they have genuinely found belongingness, received relevant guidance to help navigate the complexities of not having documentation, and been supported socially, mentally, and academically – what would we discover? We suspect that we would find a significant amount of work to be done in these areas. Susana Muñoz and colleagues found that undocumented students often experience heightened levels of racist nativism and may feel exploited as undocumented workers on campus. Research also shows that so-called “sanctuary campuses” are not always the most welcoming and supportive spaces, and may only be symbolic without true action and commitment.

Student graduating and walking on campus

The bottom line is that we can’t discuss success strategies for HSIs without discussing undocumented students and we can’t explore the success of undocumented students without examining the efficacy of HSIs; the two have a symbiotic relationship. Undocumented students also have intersectional identities, including LGBTQIA, veteran or military-connected students, student-parents, and student-athletes, to name a few, which cause further stress to the student as they navigate the college environment. Additionally, it is not always the student who is an undocumented individual. Students raised by undocumented parents or that are members of mixed-status families may also identify as undocumented via a social cultural-identity, whereby they automatically forgo the opportunity to seek financial assistance or economic mobility out of fear or guilt. Not having documentation affects the total person, emotionally, mentally, financially, and academically, and HSIs must consider each of these dimensions.

So what should HSIs do in order to serve undocumented students? Where should HSIs start to extend their servingness to this population? Here we offer 5 ways for HSIs to serve undocumented students:

  1. Commit to Care, Build Trust, & Listen - Create safe spaces on campus that are supportive and caring, including classrooms and student support services; listen to the stories of undocumented students; validate their experiences. We can only learn with students when they know and feel they are safe.

  2. Develop an Institutional Plan - Create an institutional plan for supporting undocumented students; train student-facing faculty and staff members to support them; identify measurable outcomes to build trust with undocumented students; get buy-in from all ranks of the institution; appoint a designated full-time staff member who can serve the needs of undocumented students. A recent law, IL House Bill 3438, now requires that beginning the 2022-2023 academic year, all Illinois public colleges and universities must designate an undocumented student liaison, and the incorporation of a resource center is highly encouraged.

  3. Learn from Trailblazers - Find institutions in your region or state that are forging new pathways and creating systemic change to serve undocumented students; look to them for guidance and support; don’t recreate models if there are models that work; be open to trying something new without having it fully built. Start with what you think you know, and let what you discover be your guide.

  4. Audit Student Journeys Across Your Institution - Consider the pathways of undocumented students moving into and through your institution. What do they encounter while trying to enroll at your institution? Do they have the economic resources to enroll and persist? Do we offer comprehensive academic, economic, legal, and social-emotional support to them? Does the college messaging address the unique dilemmas of undocumented students? Does it offer sound solutions and institutional support? Can undocumented students trust what the college promises? Do our HSIs efforts include undocumented students?

  5. Challenge Unconscious Biases and Deficit Mindsets - HSIs must look deeply into their policies and procedures to challenge unconscious bias and identity-neutral approaches to servingness. How do internal policies create roadblocks and challenges for undocumented students? Understand and embrace that this student population is not going away and failure to serve them will dismantle all servingness efforts and affect the communities HSIs claim to serve. Seek an independent, third-party advisor who can offer an equity-minded, justice-oriented review of your institutional policies.

As a second-generation Latina, Linda understands only too well the cultural implications within the academic, public, and private sectors. Linda is Founder & President of CULTIVATE EXCELLENCE Consulting. In this role, she combines her expertise in integrated marketing communications and content development to provide the ultimate value to clients. She co-authored the book, Today’s Inspired Latina Volume III: Life Stories of Success in the Face of Adversity. She is also a sought after speaker and blogger, and is the founder of Operation Jesus: Chicago, a grassroots organization that mobilizes volunteers from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds to care for the homeless.

Woman with dark-brown hair wearing a necklace and blue top.
Linda Alberty Layhew, M.A.

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Linda Alberty Layhew, M.A.


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