The University has long prided itself as an institution that welcomes students from various walks of life, ethnic groups, and identities. Just take a glance at the class profile for the class of 2023: Of the admitted pool, 58 different countries are represented, and almost half (49 percent) of those admitted are students of color. It has made an effort to become and to sell itself as an institution that focuses on diversity, inclusivity, and openness. As a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, I was attracted to this image. I felt as if this institution would be the perfect place for me to grow and thrive regardless of my DACA status.
But this image, in reality, was not quite so flawless. Before coming to this University, I found it hard to connect with people who were not also undocumented. And to be honest, I would be lying if I said I don’t still feel that way. Both at home, and at Wesleyan, I find my status to be underrepresented, and I struggle to find people who share similar experiences. It may be due to the fact that I have subconsciously been afraid of letting others know about this integral part of my identity and fear people’s negative opinions about undocumented people.
Thankfully, I was able to find other first year students who were also DACA/undocumented and who could understand some of my anxieties.
“A lot of the times no one is outright comfortable telling people about, ‘Oh this is my situation,’ or, ‘Oh look at me I’m a DACA person,’” said Gio Ar ’23, a DACA student from San Diego, Calif.
From a social standpoint, I think a big reason why my experience has been mostly positive can be greatly attributed to the environments that I have placed myself in and created over the course of the month. I currently live in 200 Church, a dorm that focuses on social justice and activism. My home on campus really does embody the spirit of inclusivity that I desired when I came to the University.
Christopher Rodriguez Ñeke ’23, an undocumented student from New Haven, Conn., has found comfort and solidarity through cooking, a hobby which he has used to meet new friends and create a small and inclusive community.
“I like to get a group of friends from many different backgrounds and do something to connect with each other,” Ñeke said. “I organized with some cooking with them and invited them because some of them didn’t know how to cook. It was a really nice moment, and I think that was a really good way of building a community.”
Ar prefers to keep his circles close, investing time in individual relationships. For me, too, those types of close, personal connections have been so much more valuable than surface-level friendships with people who are made uncomfortable by my status, and choose to ignore it.
“I have grown to enjoy myself as an individual and not seeking fulfillment in having many friendships and having a really close circle [instead],” he said.
That, however, has not stopped him from joining student organizations.
“I have been to a couple of clubs like Young Democratic Socialist of America (YDSA), and I presented this idea of educating more people about DACA recipients and who they are because there are misconceptions that people have, by placing labels and things like that,” Ar said. “People will say things without realizing that there are people amongst them that they are directly offending.”
Ar says that YDSA members were receptive to his ideas and eager to help him start the conversation on campus and raise awareness about the challenges that undocumented/DACA students face.
“So that club was super supportive, and there was one really cool guy, and after the meeting, he was like, ‘I have so much respect for you, and if you are ever in need of anything, I’ll be willing to fight for you,’” Ar said. “It made me feel so good. Meeting people like that is sort of what I value the most and has been the best for me at Wesleyan.”
While there are certain spaces where DACA/undocumented students are made to feel valid and accepted, like the YDSA and the Resource Center, students have also taken it upon themselves to create their own communities. Whether it is creating diverse groups or being involved in them, undocumented students have a heightened need to find and secure spaces in which they feel comfortable, which may take a multitude of forms.
Academically, most spaces here are majority white. But because I went to a majority-white high school and was often the only dark-skinned girl, this was less of a culture shock. Some other undocumented students, however, shared different experiences. When Ñeke first got to high school, he quickly realized that the administration had no vision or track for sending undocumented students to college. Instead, his school focused on providing undocumented students with language skills, while the college application process was hardly a point of focus.
“The problem I see with many high schools in the U.S. is there is help, but there is not—they don’t have the vision for us going to college or do something great,” he said. “They want to support us with the language [English] they try to graduate and knowing English.”
Ñeke’s high school was divided into four academies, each of a different academic focus. Ultimately, Ñeke was able to switch into a different academy which was better equipped with the resources to prepare him for college. When he started running for the track team, he quickly realized that he didn’t have the same background or level of preparation as many of his new peers, who had been preparing for the college application process for a long time. Although he was up for the challenge, he was also frustrated by the barriers that he had to overcome in order to face those challenges, barriers that many of his peers did not face and could not understand.
“In my high school, in [my old] academy, you were able to feel as if you were back in your country, because many students there speak Spanish,” he said. “Then I realized that was not the same path [as] my friends in the track team. They were not undocumented. I was still learning the language just by listening to what they were [saying] about AP classes and SATs, and all of it was new for me. I asked my guidance counselor more about it, and I found out that I was missing so many things [to go to college]. I felt really behind, and my goal was to go to college. And I knew that I had to do something different…. That’s the kind of stuff that happens in the undocumented community. They graduate without knowing what is an AP class or what is an SAT.”
The college admissions process poses many barriers for undocumented students. In addition to the deep-rooted socioeconomic barriers that make undocumented students feel like they are not meant for higher education, practical necessities, like tutoring, SAT preparation, and exam fees often prevent otherwise capable students from being able to apply to college. The process is disheartening and makes many DACA students feel as though they are excluded from opportunities for success. Ñeke also described the difficulties of the application process. It was necessary to get external help, he explained, help which he had to find on his own because it wasn’t always provided by his school.
“The application process was really rough,” he said. “But I met my friend’s mom, and she helped me out with the process. I think if it wasn’t for her, I would not be here, because there is so much information that undocumented students do not get. I even had to ask my high school for an extra year [to include more AP classes].”
My journey applying to the University was also quite difficult. Because many of us do not have parents who have gone to college or know how the college application process works, we are often on our own to figure out how the system works. Through high school, I was also burdened with the pressure to go to a good college, because my parents instilled in me the belief that education was key and that it would allow me to further advance regardless of my immigration status. There were definitely some hoops that I had to jump through that my American peers would not have to encounter—including applying to only schools that can provide financial aid to undocumented students, knowing I cannot apply for FASFA, having to email so many schools about my situation, and in general, being at the whim of the current presidential administration. Honestly, at times, I felt hopeless.
The hardships and tribulations eventually did pay off when I got accepted to a majority of schools, including Wesleyan. But I knew I had to choose a school that would have a multitude of resources for me to utilize when I arrived at the campus; it so happened that the University had an entire student Resource Center that aids all different types of students, including undocumented ones.
I went to have a conversation with Demetrius Colvin, who runs the Resource Center, to explore the resources that DACA/undocumented students are provided here, at the University. He explained that because of the volatility of their status, it can be difficult to reach out to DACA/undocumented students specifically.
“Because of that privacy and secrecy that comes with this status, [some basic things] become different than they would be for, for example, FGLI [first-generation, low-income] students,” Colvin said. “I can directly advertise a market for them, I can create new programs like FTF [First Things First, a program for first-generation first years]. But that stuff can’t happen easily for DACA students. It is one of the most complicated things.”
Because of these challenges, Demetrius has been focusing on creating programming that serves everyone, but that may be of particular interest to undocumented/DACA students. He pointed to programs like the textbook request program, the clothing drive, and a variety of other services provided.
“We are trying to wrap the concept of documentation status and immigration into some of our collaborations,” he said. “The first one coming up is Latinx Affirmation Month. We are going to to a panel on how immigration status affects students here at Wesleyan, and we are going to send out the voices of any DACA students who want to connect with us and also international students.”
The Resource Center is also planning to host a similar panel during African Student Association Week. African and Black immigrants face a lot of discrimination, and Trump has looked to limit African immigration. Colvin hopes that these kinds of events will raise awareness about those dynamics and begin to shift the frame.
We also discussed the creation of UndocuAlly, a training program that was created to educate people about the issues facing the undocumented community at the University.
“It will be the first time Wesleyan is putting together a formal body of faculty, staff, and students to particularly talk about and organize around how to support undocumented students better given that conundrum, that conflict that everyone has to work with,” he said. “Through that body, I hope that we get more policy and program recommendations that the Resource Center can implement.”
Colvin emphasized that although the Resource Center is trying to be a centralized support group for different communities, it is largely up to the students to determine how the space functions and who it serves.
“We assist to breathe, but we ain’t the lungs,” he said. “The lungs are the effort, the energy, the willingness to connect, the willingness to see each other. To have visibility despite what you see in the classroom, despite what you see in the world or nationally in the country or at home: That energy, that motivation, those are the lungs.”
When I asked Ñeke and Ar what the University could do better for undocumented communities and what an ideal University would be, they shared some of their ideas.
Ñeke believes that improvements could be made on the part of the administration.
“I think there should be one person to have all the answers for undocumented students and in general,” he said. “Because there is so much stuff that is not the same for undocumented and international [students]. It would be useful to have someone who we could trust and who can respond to all the questions you have, about work, about trade, many things. In the social side, I think it would be nice if there was a better connection between undocumented/DACA students with the rest of the students here instead of being kinda isolated. Just combine all the students together and share our stories and our challenges.”
Colvin explained that while the administration must strive to make the University more accessible, students should also take it upon themselves to make the University the kind place they want it to be, a space of inclusion and respect.
“From a student-based level, how much do student organizations really take on when it comes to diversity and inclusivity?” Colvin asked. “Because a lot of marginalized communities sleep on their own bigotry and their own issues. We have to figure it out within our own community because we find solidarity in generalizing and homogenizing with each other without really seeing the issues within our own community and embracing the complexities of being Black or being Latinx. We need to embrace the conflicts—a conversation nobody wants to have, but that is where the answer lies.”
Though the University has been good for me so far, there is still so much work to be done. I honestly believe that there is power in being undocumented. But only when we have conversations about how to better our communities can this power be truly realized.
When passionate people strive to have these conversations, and to confront these issues, we become better—and the University becomes better.
“There is so much passion here,” Colvin said. “When you connect that with human depth, with empathy, with connection? That to me can be transformational and powerful.”
Ashley Ogwang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.