Supporting DACA Students in Higher Ed: A Q&A with Students

Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) is a national nonprofit that empowers a community of exceptional young leaders by supporting their higher education and professional success in order to create a more inclusive and equitable country. The LEDA Policy Project trains and positions young leaders from the LEDA Community to lend their voices to federal policy discussions pertaining to postsecondary education.

Through the work of the LEDA Policy Project, we had hoped to bring students to the College Board’s Prepárate Conference to discuss how higher education institutions can support DACA students and reduce the resource gap that they face as a result of state and federal laws and institutional policies. The event was canceled, but the conversation is still critical so we are converting our panel to a written Q&A. Additionally, in the interest of privacy concerns, we’ll only be using students’ first initial and the institution that they attend.

We know that there are many uncertainties about when the current crisis will be over and what life will be like once it is. We also know that the most vulnerable populations are often the hardest hit and most overlooked in response and recovery plans are developed. That’s why we think that it’s important to highlight their stories during this time. We hope that in doing so, undocumented students won’t be left out of the policy discussions now or in the future.

About the students:

L: L is a member of the LEDA Policy Corps, a LEDA Career Fellow, and a student at the University of California at Berkeley.

W: W is a member of the LEDA Policy Corps, a LEDA Career Fellow, and a student at the University of Notre Dame.

Question: What has been the biggest barrier for you as a DACA student? What has your college done (or can they do) to help students overcome this barrier?

L: You’ll often hear about how important non-academic aspects of college are, study abroad and internships, for example, but accessing those are often more challenging for DACA students. The UC system helped me access these through a program that places students at internships in Washington, DC, where I spent the majority of my spring 2020 semester. This was a great way to explore and study in a different part of the country and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to intern and take classes in the nation’s capital. Through my internship at the Migration Policy Institute, I learned more about data analysis and research on immigration issues. Additionally, I was able to build my network by meeting with policy analysts while also making long-lasting friendships with people from other UC campuses. Being away from Berkeley allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and learn about the work other schools and organizations are doing around immigration. I think colleges should make an active effort to advertise these opportunities to DACA students because they are great ways to build professionalism and meet people from across the country.

W: My biggest challenge has been finding funding opportunities outside of Notre Dame’s institutional scholarships. I am a STEM student and interested in going to medical school. It’s important for STEM students to get funding for specific research projects to build our skillsets. For example, in order to participate in cancer research at a university close to home, I would need to look for summer research opportunities in my state. Nearly all of these summer research opportunities are funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, state governments, or private entities which require that applicants be citizens or green card holders. This is extremely limiting for someone in a STEM field of study who is looking to go to graduate school or professional school. A lack of funding limits my experience in independent research and skill development and my ability to compete as an applicant to medical and graduate schools.

Question: What resources do you think every campus needs to have for DACA students?

L: Many campuses have a training called UndocuAlly, which teaches participants how to be an ally for undocumented students on campus. The training covers important topics like confidentiality, the citizenship status spectrum, and any well-known resources for DACA students. These trainings are helpful for faculty and staff to learn about immigrant identities and the challenges that many undocumented students on campus can face. In addition to this, Berkeley has a center and counselors dedicated to supporting DACA students. It has been helpful to have a designated counselor and a safe space on campus where there are resources that are curated for DACA students. Thanks to these resources, I have been able to attend financial aid workshops and participate in community-building programming that helps foster safe spaces for DACA students.

W: I think every campus should have a designated advisor who is familiar with the needs of DACA and undocumented students. At Notre Dame, there is an advisor present for every single undocumented and DACA student and alumni. This person is the first point of communication when we have questions regarding financial aid, career development, legal protections, funding opportunities, resources for low-income students, and resources specifically for DACA and undocumented students. Additionally, this person makes an effort to make sure that all of the DACA and undocumented students and alumni are connected so that we can be a resource for each other.

Question: Everyone is thinking about the impact of COVID-19, which has had a pretty severe impact on college students. Can you tell us how campus closures impacted you? Have you faced any unique challenges because of your DACA status?

L: This semester, I was supposed to be in Washington, D.C., until April 17th with a UC Berkeley program. Due to COVID-19, the program ended a month early and we were told to return home. My plans for the next few months were completely altered. Work and class both switched to remote. I am currently back home in Los Angeles where I live with my family, and that led to a whole new set of responsibilities. In addition to meeting deadlines for work and classes, I also have to babysit my three younger siblings while my parents are at work. When I’m home during regular breaks, I usually go to coffee shops or libraries to focus on my work because I don’t have my own space at home as I do at my apartment in Berkeley or in my D.C. program. Additionally, the challenges extend to future employment opportunities. The majority of the summer internships I applied to were canceled, causing further stress on my financial situation. Thankfully, one of my professors at UC Berkeley recently offered to hire me as a research assistant, but I know these opportunities are not widely available for many students.

I’m relieved to have a form of employment for the summer, but I am disappointed in how our country handled assistance for our country’s immigrant communities. Although I file taxes, I do not qualify for the stimulus check. Additionally, the Education Department’s recent decision to exclude DACA students from emergency grants means that I am also not eligible for that assistance. The impact of COVID-19 extends past citizenship status, but the assistance provided by our federal government does not.

W: Like most college students, I had to move back home, and as a low-income student, the cost of transportation was pretty steep. My university allocated emergency funds for transportation to low-income students regardless of immigration status, which was extremely helpful. The switch to online learning has been a strange transition but it’s nothing unique to DACA students in these times. Instead, I have faced challenges that are common among vulnerable populations. This pandemic has really shined a spotlight on inequalities like access to a reliable internet connection. This is a huge problem as we try to finish our degrees online, and it will continue to be hard for people who are counting on remote summer internships and jobs.

One issue that I think is unique to DACA and undocumented students involves finances in their households. Many of us live in families that live paycheck to paycheck and a lot of our parents work service jobs. Because of social distancing guidelines, our families are incapable of providing a steady source of income. Long term, this is not sustainable for a lot of our families, and with so much uncertainty surrounding the timeline of this pandemic, the outlook does not look too bright.

Question: Any final comments or recommendations regarding the impact of COVID and DACA students? ?

L: COVID-19 is affecting immigrant families in a variety of ways. DACA students, like myself, might be unsure about their financial situation and how they will provide for themselves and their families. The services that are usually available for students at their universities — recruiting, career center counseling, etc. — are no longer readily available or easily accessible.

In addition to financial burdens, migrants in the United States also face many health vulnerabilities that make them more susceptible to the impacts of COVID-19. Essential occupations in the U.S. are heavily migrant-concentrated, and low-income, mixed-status families living in crowded households are more at risk and might not have the option of isolation. We need access to affordable healthcare if we get sick. Because our access to insurance is limited, we need to know about clinics and hospitals that will accept uninsured patients.

I think the best we can all do for each other is to inform others. We are living in such an unpredictable time and everyone is affected in different ways. Simply posting resources and information could go a long way for everyone.

W: Unfortunately, DACA recipients and many immigrants haven’t been eligible for the relief that has been implemented by the federal government. The $1,200 stimulus check that was promised to taxpayers should be available to all taxpayers that fall under the income caps. DACA recipients, as well as undocumented workers, pay taxes, so we should be included. I was genuinely shocked and enraged to find out that households will not receive relief checks if one spouse on a jointly filed tax return uses an ITIN rather than a SSN. Excluding these populations is a racist and discriminatory policy choice and is dangerous to the country overall. The lack of financial support will mean that impacted households will need to go out and find work, regardless of the social distancing guidelines, in order to pay bills for gas, electricity, food, internet, and rent. In the process, these workers, essential or not, will be risking their health, the health of the people in their households, and the health of the community at large.

We need the financial support that we were excluded from receiving in the CARES Act. We would greatly benefit from a stimulus payment in the same way that other taxpayers do. So, if you work in local or state government, fight to find ways to give us the necessary funds to help us survive. If you’re a small business owner who relies on undocumented workers, listen to our concerns and work to meet our needs. And if you are a non-profit organization or foundation, focus your efforts on providing our communities with effective financial support.

Today’s Students Coalition

The Today’s Students Coalition advocates for postsecondary policies that support the success of today’s students.

Today's Students Coalition

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The Today’s Students Coalition advocates for postsecondary policies that support the success of today’s students. #ActforTodaysStudents

Today’s Students Coalition

The Today’s Students Coalition advocates for postsecondary policies that support the success of today’s students.

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