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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Tufts strives to build community, support system for undocumented students

Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin announces Tufts' support for equity in the education of undocumented students at UIJ's National Institutions Coming Out Day in Support of Undocumented Education Equity on the Lower Campus Center Patio on Tuesday, Apr. 7, 2015.

As more undocumented students have been accepted and have enrolled at Tufts in both the Class of 2019 and 2020, following the university's 2015 decision to begin admitting undocumented students, Tufts continues to allocate resources to support these students' college careers and beyond.

Over a year ago, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin announced that Tufts would change its admissions policy and openly welcome undocumented student applications and meet their demonstrated financial aid needs through university grants, according to an April 13, 2015 Daily article.

Following the policy change, the Admissions website's class profile shows that six undocumented and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students enrolled into the Class of 2019. Eighteen undocumented and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students were accepted into the Class of 2020, according to an April 4 Tufts Now article. Though the final numbers of committed students yet have not been disclosed, Director of Diversity Recruitment and Associate Director of Admissions Edward Pickett III said that the incoming first-year class will have a larger group of undocumented students than the year before. 

As more undocumented and DACA students arrive on campus, the university will need to closely examine obstacles students face as well as shortcomings in resource allocation in order to provide the best possible college experience for a new demographic of students with unique needs, Latino Center Director Rubén Stern said.

Initial outreach

Pickett said the number of undocumented students applying to Tufts is likely to grow, as more applicants become aware of the new policy and learn about the university. Since announcing the policy change last spring, the admissions team has taken a number of steps to make the university more accessible for undocumented students, including creating a webpage specifically for undocumented students highlighting how the admission process works.

“The policy is out there and labels Tufts as DACA-friendly: that’s huge," Pickett said. "We also have a version of our admissions site that’s entirely in Spanish. It walks you through the whole admissions, financial aid process and the feeling [of] Tufts.”

The university's updated admissions policy enables the admissions team to reach out to students with undocumented status early on in their college search process. While the Common Application does not enable undocumented students to directly identify themselves, undocumented students usually identify themselves in their supplementary essays or through QuestBridge if they have DACA status, according to Pickett.

Pickett said that admissions begins outreach to undocumented students only after they are admitted.

“If I reach out to you in February but don’t admit you in March, how does that feel?” he said. “Once you are admitted, then we reach out.”

He added that community outreach and support after students arrive at Tufts is out of the admissions office's hands.

“Once we bring you here, we have to rely on the systems set up at Tufts,” he said. “We are going to be talking ... about how we can best represent what the university has and what it doesn’t have.”

Resources and funding

As the university welcomed its first openly undocumented students on campus in the fall, a working group was created to discuss and provide recommendations regarding the allocation of university resources to ease the transition process for these students into the Tufts community, according to an Oct. 23, 2015 Daily storyThe working group, chaired by Stern and Associate Dean of Academic Advising and Undergraduate Studies Robert Mack, includes representatives from the Office of Residential Life and Learning, Counseling and Mental Health Service (CMHS) and Career Services, as well as students from United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ).

Beyond making enrollment at Tufts an option for undocumented students, Mack emphasized the importance of following up on this policy change by providing resources to make sure undocumented students can have the same opportunities as other students.

“We’re working really hard to not just open the door, but to think about all the things we need to do to make our community one that responds to having undocumented students here and allowing them to thrive,” he said.

According to Stern, undocumented students have unique financial needs that are not covered by their financial aid packages due to their status. He said that the Latino Center and the working group will try to fundraise for any costs that arise for undocumented students by tapping alumni and donors through University Advancement.

“We want to meet with Advancement and raise these issues so we can strategize how to get money," he said. "I mean, just renewing DACA is $465 … and working here is — these kids need to work. I’m sure they’re going to want a list of possibilities so that donors can see that this is what the money is going to be spent on, so part of our plan is to present these recommendations to people high up, [who] deal with Advancement.

Stern said that there are still many unsolved issues pertaining to fully incorporating undocumented students into the university community that the working group is discussing.

“How about work study, how about internships, how about going abroad, I mean, how about flying home?” he said. “Counseling is big because all along the way, some people can’t go home and visit their families if there’s problems.”

Darleen Gracia, a group therapy coordinator at CMHS and a member of the working group, said that CMHS is working to improve counseling to fit the needs of undocumented students.

“We are examining what services and supports are already in place at Tufts to assist undocumented students through their particular experiences, while also looking at which areas need further development,” she said. “We are aware that many of the traditional avenues of receiving care or services may be limited or inaccessible to folks who are undocumented, which is why CMHS and Health Service are continuing to work together to increase access to additional services, both on and off campus.” 

Gracia, who described herself as the “point person” within CMHS for undocumented studentsadded that a work-study position for this summer has been created at CMHS for anyone interested in working to expand resources for undocumented students.

Stern said that a point person and support figure in administration would help foster a spirit of community, similar to the structure of the Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) program, which aims to develop a strong cohort of scholars from multiple backgrounds. BLAST intends to “support, develop, and retain students who may be first in their family to attend a four year college, and/or have attended under resourced high school and/or have been affiliated with a college access agency,” according to its website.

“Through BLAST, some of these students get a lot of attention, but not every undocumented student is in BLAST," Stern said. "But in a lot of ways, they need something like that — where they always have someone to go to for support … They would have a constant connection with somebody."

Mack, who also serves as the director of BLAST, said that next year he will no longer serve as an Associate Dean of Undergraduate Advising, so that he can focus on providing additional support for underrepresented or marginalized students, including those who are undocumented.

“I will also now be an official resource for undocumented students, continue to be the advisor for QuestBridge, and I will also be overseeing the first-generation student council,” he said. “So in my new roles, I will have a lot of opportunity to work with our students.

However, Stern insisted that undocumented students need an official on campus who is dedicated primarily to their needs, explaining that Mack may not be best-suited for this role because of his other commitments. 

“What I would like to see from the [working group] is a job description: what is a point person’s job. And then we can think about, instead of just saying 'let Dean Mack do it,' because he has so much else to do, see who would best fit that role,” he said. “And they’re going to need to have the time too. I’m concerned with some of those deans up at Dowling — they’re busy all the time.”

He added that such specificity in the case of resources for undocumented students is due to the specificity of their experience. 

“Undocumented students are unique, they have had an experience that makes them different, that scars them, and I don’t know if it’s ever completely going to go away,” he said. “They are defined by their situation: you can’t escape it. You can be Latino and try to assimilate or pretend you’re not, but you can’t pretend you’re [not] undocumented.”

A community in the shadows

According to rising sophomore Diego Espinoza, an undocumented student at Tufts and a member the undocumented students working group, there are a limited number of undocumented students who feel comfortable enough to identify themselves within the community.

“I don’t know a lot of the other undocumented students personally,” Espinoza said. “I’ve actually been trying to find more undocumented students so that they can come to the meetings [and] so that I’m not the only one giving input, because I clearly don’t encompass all the experiences of undocumented students.”

However, he said he understands the hesitancy to openly identify oneself as undocumented. 

“From my experience at least, the fact that you’re undocumented is quite sensitive information because once someone knows you’re undocumented, there’s almost like a handle that someone can have over you,” he said. “There’s always this fear, this thing we don’t talk about which maybe we should talk.”

Stern acknowledged the difficulty of embracing one’s undocumented status. 

“Students have been hiding all their lives, and they’re not going to come out of the shadows just like that,” he said.

However, Espinoza also said that after attending a camp led by Boston’s Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) from March 12 to 13, during which Espinoza said students participated in rallies at the State House chanting “undocumented and unafraid,” he felt far more comfortable publicly revealing his status.

“For me, it created this family — I knew that I wasn’t alone, and even though I might be afraid, there are those who are willing to fight despite all the difficulties they’ve been through,” he said. “It was really inspiring and made me want to join them, make a change and help others who are in the same situation as we are.”

Stern and Espinoza both explained that building a community is essential to feeling comfortable within the university environment and that “coming out” must be a part of this process. 

“For Tufts to create an environment where undocumented students can be comfortable talking about their identity, we’re going to have to build that community," Espinoza said. "Because right now there is no community — all of us who are undocumented or who have undocumented family members or friends, there’s no community really, no way to bring us all together.”

Gracia explained that the process of “coming out” is often very intimidating for undocumented students used to protecting their identity in the face of negative public opinion towards undocumented immigrants.

“The discourse on the national front as well as in their own communities is one that paints a negative image of immigrants and makes for a hostile living environment,” she told the Daily in an email. “As you can imagine, the stress of living in fear and being constantly hyper-vigilant for years has very detrimental consequences to one’s mental health and sense of well being. That said, ‘coming out’ is a process and one that is unique to each individual. Our goal is always to meet students wherever they are in their journey and encourage and support them throughout that process.”

An unknown future

Espinoza said that one of his major concerns moving forward is his future in the workforce after graduating from Tufts and that the working group is working on providing resources to students to find solutions in this area. 

“It is a goal of the working group to see how to support undocumented students after graduation,” he said. “[The group has not] gotten there yet, really. We’re still working within Tufts, but we’re looking at working with the Career Center to find an answer to those kinds of questions. I’d like to know more information about what my life after college might be like. I don’t know how to get a job.”

Since attending the Boston SIM camp and speaking with undocumented students in the professional world, however, Espinoza has newfound hope for his and his peers’ futures.

“It’s a good feeling, to think I can do something. I’m not just going to leave college and have nowhere to go,” he said.

He also hopes that Tufts can organize a similar experience to instill that hope in its undocumented student community.

Stern agreed, saying that it is essential for Tufts to help undocumented students anticipate their futures after graduation, since the career opportunities for undocumented graduates are, as of now, legally limited.

“Right now, what undocumented people can do is start their own businesses, be consultants, contractors, freelancers,” he said. “And obviously a big piece is gonna be counseling, because if you’re an engineering student, what are your hopes for the future if you’re undocumented?”

According to Stern, adapting to life at Tufts and preparing for life after graduation is even more difficult for students who do not have DACA status. He explained that working opportunities for these students are limited even before graduation from the university.

“[The working group] met with Financial Aid the other day to talk about how undocumented students can’t do work study using federal money, but can do work study within Tufts, but even within that there’s a difference between a DACA undocumented, who has some kind of card that gives him a right to work, versus undocumented that aren’t DACA," he said. "We’re not only accepting student with DACA, we’re also accepting students who don’t have that paperwork."

According to Espinoza, there is a significant difference between the legal capabilities and lifestyles of undocumented students with DACA versus those without it.

DACA makes it easier to be a student because it gives you a working permit and a social security number," he said. "If you don’t have DACA, it’s harder to get financial aid or any help at all. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have DACA.

Follow the leader

On March 2, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and undocumented American Jose Antonio Vargas gave a talk in the Cohen Auditorium on the plight of undocumented Americans and the way they are portrayed in the media. His visit to Tufts included conversations about the university’s new policy on accepting undocumented students, as well as a meeting with the working group, during which he provided insights based on his personal experiences, according to a March 4 Daily story.

During Vargas' visit to Tufts, he sat down with the Daily to speak about the steps he felt Tufts still needed to take to support for undocumented students.

“I just look forward to Tufts University taking a leadership role internally and externally, publicly, about their decisions when it comes to undocumented students at this campus,” he said.

Vargas also said that it is important for Tufts to take a leadership role among schools in the Boston area.

“I congratulate Tufts for getting to that place where they can talk publicly about it and welcome undocumented students. But how does Tufts now play a lead role and talk to BC, BU, Harvard, MIT, UMass Boston?” he said. “Now that they’ve made a decision, how do they leverage that and talk to other universities? Let’s get started in Boston. You know there’s no in-state tuition in Massachusetts. Can we start there? The problem is absolutely systematic, but then again Tufts has decided to take this stance … It needs to go all the way, in the public and private realms.”

Massachusetts has an undocumented population of about 150,000, making up 3.4 percent of the state’s workforce, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study on immigration. However, Vargas said the state has done little in the way of legislation to make these people's lives easier, since undocumented residents still cannot get a driver’s license, although now those with DACA status can now apply for one.

According to Espinoza, other schools have expressed interest in looking to Tufts as a model for making their policies’ more inclusive following the policy change.

“Some other schools in Boston have expressed interest in getting to know the kind of work that Tufts’ working group is doing, and how we cooperate and communicate about undocumented students and coming out and supporting them, both financially and academically,” he said. “This could be a point to push other schools to work towards accepting undocumented students openly.”

While Stern recognizes a lack of active leadership on support undocumented students outside the Tufts community, he said that since the admissions policy is still relatively new, there are still logistics needed to support admitted students.

“We first have to become a leader within our own campus in terms of following through on this policy," he said. "Just admitting them is not enough, we need to ... have a long-range view on what it means to have this new policy: how do we recruit students, what messages do we send out there, how many are we willing to support financially. We still have to get our house in order.”

Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas said that the new policy is still in its early stages, but that he has been involved in discussions about applying Tufts' undocumented students policy to its graduate schools as well.

“We’re not really in a place to talk to other schools yet,” he said. “Let’s say another university asked us what’s the impact of having undocumented students, how much does this cost you ... They’re going to ask us follow-up questions that we’re not prepared to answer yet, but we certainly want to be able to answer them soon.”

Mack said that while fixing issues internally is the priority, providing leadership for the Boston community is also highly important.

"The external-facing issues and the ideas that Jose [Vargas] talked about are so important … We have a lot of great schools in the area, and coalition building and collaborating will be key,” he said. “Connecting with the city and understanding the politics behind this movement and our connection to it is all going to be really valuable. But right now we have a responsibility to our students and our campus.”

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