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‘Undocu-serving institutions’ create hurdles for undocumented students /

Navigating higher education can be challenging for anyone – but for undocumented students the environment is even more unpredictable and isolating.

Recent research by higher education scholar Cinthya Salazar in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University sheds light on the challenges undocumented students face in higher education.

Many undocumented students across the United States experience the same pressures their fellow classmates do, such as assignments, deadlines and preparing for exams. This normal stress only is intensified by their undocumented status. Salazar’s research found that these students rely on their families and the support systems schools create to shoulder some of the pressure they face.

“[Undocumented] students kept talking about when they were encountering any challenges, they would first reach out to their families unlike going to maybe administrators or an advisor,” Salazar says. “They rely a lot on their parents, siblings and extended families as well to find resources or motivation when they were doubting if they could continue moving forward.”

Additionally, many undocumented students lack the same financial resources that citizen students are granted through financial aid grants and scholarships, as many require a proof of citizenship or residency. This creates financial stress for undocumented students and their families.

“Half of the sample population said their families were paying for their education out-of-pocket and I was not expecting to find that data,” Salazar says. “Most of the parents of the [undocumented] students were also undocumented, and they were still paying for their education out of pocket.”

Salazar says the students appreciated their family’s sacrifice, knowing that it was hard for their parents to pay for their education. Therefore, undocumented students feel a responsibility to take it seriously and succeed.

Family units can also add stressors for students. Salazar said she observed women faced with the ultimatum of choosing between continuing their education or supporting their family unit. If they chose their education, they were shunned or cast out by their families.

Friends are an important part of the college-going experience. Undocumented students struggle with authentic friendships because they fear they cannot be completely honest or trust their peers in disclosing their undocumented status. Salazar recalls how difficult it was for herself to reveal that she was undocumented to her fellow peers. Many of other students also live with this concern due to fear of prejudice or judgment.

She says the way for schools to support their undocumented populations is by helping educate and change the narrative on being undocumented. Currently, admissions policies vary by state, but most schools do not require proof of citizenship in their applications, according to the College Board.

“Institutional agents are ignorant of the policies and sometimes hostile,” Salazar says. “Participants in my study, similar to students I work with in higher education, have to do all the work. They have to educate administrators, educate faculty on the policies and that is a huge burden. It’s a lot of information you need to know.”

She says undocumented student have been the exception and not the rule. Salazar adds that there are often contradictions between state policies and institutional practices that allow some students to succeed while placing barriers for others.

It is estimated over 450,000 students in U.S. higher education are undocumented. Salazar’s goal hopes to start a larger dialogue with her research among higher education institutions and what they can do to become what she calls “undocu-serving institutions.”

“What [me and student coresearchers] found in my research is that undocu-friendly is not enough,” Salazar says. “Undocu-serving is a term that we introduced that is a level that institutions should aim to reach.”