Many of the 420,000-plus undocumented college students in the U.S. have considerably different experiences from their peers. Their right to study in the U.S. often rides a razor’s edge. Risks include disclosing information on the wrong form or sharing their immigration status with an acquaintance who decides to use the information against them.

Back row from left, Dr. Maura Toro-Morn, Dr. Beth Hatt, Front row from left, Diego Hernandez ’20, Ana Belmonte, M.S. ’20, and Dr. Juliet Lynd

Dr. Beth Hatt, professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF), said those are just a couple of the reasons undocumented or mixed status students need more specialized support than the average Redbird. It’s also why she co-founded the Coalition Advocating for Undocumented Student Achievement (CAUSA) with fellow faculty member, Dr. Maura Toro-Morn. Dr. Juliet Lynd also joined the effort in its early stages of development.

“The purpose is to support undocumented and mixed status students and their families, as well as to help put Illinois State on the map as a place where they can thrive,” said Hatt.

Illinois is one of 19 states to grant in-state tuition for undocumented college students. What’s more, Illinois is among just a handful of states in the U.S. to empower them to earn their teaching licensure.

Since establishing the coalition in 2016, the team has held countless one on-one sessions with students, organized 30-plus trainings to educate the University, and worked with enrollment management and student affairs to increase supports for undocumented and mixed status students.

In addition, the CAUSA group recently partnered with EAF alum Dr. Daniel López, Ph.D. ’02, to help establish Illinois State’s first scholarship for undocumented students. López, a 2021 inductee into the College of Education Hall of Fame, was an undocumented student in the 1980s when he first attended Harold Washington College in Chicago. He now serves as its president.

“I believe higher education institutions have an obligation to serve undocumented students,” López said. “Institutions of higher education should make institutional funds available to undocumented students and develop comprehensive services to support students in their educational journey.”

A bill with a will

CAUSA’s members were also among the loudest voices during the successful push for Illinois House Bill 3438. It requires the state’s public colleges and universities to employ an on-campus undocumented resource liaison for undocumented and mixed-status students, effective July 1, 2022.

The imminence of the legislation’s passing propelled Illinois State Admissions Counselor Melissa Ramírez, M.S. ’21 to action. For her 2021 practicum experience in the College Student Personnel Administration (CSPA) program, she wrote a research-backed position description and strategic plan for the hypothetical role.

“I looked at how peer institutions in Illinois and throughout the U.S. model their position, potential budgets, activities, and services,” Ramírez said. “But I also identified the strengths of ISU. I researched what we already have established but also what the disconnects are, too.”

For her, the most critical ingredient was comprehension for both university employees and their students. Ramírez presented her findings to the University’s cabinet members.

Ramírez and Hatt both agree; a liaison would provide the campus with a trusted, up-to-date resource on the constantly changing and nuanced nature of immigration law. It would give undocumented students an immediate, safe place to turn.

From dream to reality

The butterfly has become a widely understood symbol for the undocumented community because of their migratory patterns. CAUSA’s logo purposefully represents a butterfly using Illinois State University’s colors.

One of Ramírez’s top resources was EAF alum, Sandy López, Ph.D. ’22, director of undocumented student support at Northern Illinois University (NIU). López and her assistant director are among just a handful of public university employees in Illinois whose jobs are dedicated to the needs of undocumented and mixed status students.

“Undocumented students don’t want another link or another scholarship guide,” López said, “they want a person.”

López has witnessed the way undocumented students serve as the cultural brokers for their families. That means they’re often translating for them, providing transportation, and navigating legalese. Without support, those demands too often take them away from their studies and extracurriculars.

López collaborated with undocumented and mixed status NIU alumnae to put together her EAF dissertation. López used a framework called “figured worlds” as a lens to discuss the identity formation of undocumented students as a result of their college experiences that are vastly different than their home communities.

When she interviewed those students for her dissertation, a phrase from African disability activist language emerged: “nothing for us about us without us.” The words characterized how undocumented and mixed status students found ways to succeed despite a lack of support.

Starting early

Supports for undocumented and mixed status families must be in place long before college, Hatt explains. Thus, the College of Education shoulders the unique responsibility of preparing educators who are knowledgeable and committed to equitable learning environments for all students.

District 87’s Coordinator of Multilingual Education Kim Taber, ’07, M.S. ’12, is one of the many Redbirds who embraces that commitment. Her decision to enter the field stems from her own high school experience, when one of her classmates from another country failed to get the support the needed to succeed.

“That negative experience sparked my interest, but then the bilingual teacher education program at Illinois State really lit my fire for advocacy,” she said.

Taber served in classrooms from pre-k through 12th grade for over a decade before returning to her alma mater to earn a master’s in principal preparation.

“Going through the principal prep program is what gave me the opportunity for my current role. I was able to tailor my experiences, through my internships, to really focus on the tasks related to being a bilingual coordinator,” she said. Taber’s role in District 87 is to support teachers and curriculum and help multilingual students take their next steps.

Though Ramírez, NIU’s López, and Taber are serving at different points in the education process, their goals certainly align.

“When students come here from another country, undocumented or not, our goal is to make sure they’ve got the supports to serve their specific needs,” Taber said. “That includes emotional, academic, and language needs. And we’re working hard to try to ensure the systems in place are successful, and they feel good about where they are at school.”

Thanks to the leadership of Hatt, Toro-Morn, and Lynd and recent Illinois legislation of HB3438, the work of preparing Redbird educators who improve conditions for undocumented and mixed status students will continue to be a priority at Illinois State.