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Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez and John Burkhardt on shaping Aspire Higher: An Undocumented Student Guide to College In Michigan


A grant made by the Kresge Foundation’s Education Program helped the National Forum for the Public Good at the University of Michigan and a coalition of college access professionals and immigrants’ rights advocates, including the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) create Aspire Higher: An Undocumented Student Guide to College In Michigan. The state is home to an estimated 129,000 undocumented immigrants, including an estimated 13,000 DACA eligible individuals. This guide, developed through the cooperative efforts of educators, student advocates and policy makers will help get better information in the hands of families who need it. As students set their sights on the college admissions process this fall, we checked in with MIRC’s Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez and the National Forum’s John Burkhardt, who reflected on the process of developing the guide, the importance of providing clear information to aspiring college students who are undocumented, and how threats of deportation may keep some students from pursuing a college education.

Kresge: What prompted the creation of Aspire Higher: An Undocumented Student Guide to College in Michigan?

Rebeca: Between 2012 and 2013, MIRC partnered with One Michigan, an undocumented youth-led immigrant rights organization, to create the Undocumented Student Guide to College. It had not been updated for several years partly because of lack of funding. Last year, MIRC received an invitation from the National Forum for the Public Good at the University of Michigan to join them and other community partners around the state to discuss the challenges undocumented and DACA students face and to discuss best practices to support them. The challenges ranged from access to financial aid, tuition equity, legal services, and mental health resources on campus.  At the first convening on October 18, 2018 at the Michigan State Capitol, I suggested updating the guide as a concrete action to make progress on as a group. The National Forum already had research regarding tuition and financial aid assistance for undocumented and DACA students at two and four-year public institutions in Michigan. Together, we recognized it was important to share that information with those who would benefit most from having it. One way to do that was to make it accessible in the guide. Our partners working on the guide – the National Forum, One Michigan, and the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) – acknowledged the demands on our schedules and the importance of working together.

“By combining our expertise, we developed a comprehensive and updated guide to college specifically tailored to undocumented students in Michigan.”

Kresge: Can you describe the unique value-add of the guide?

John: The challenges faced by undocumented students and their families are compounded by the fact that those who wish to help them toward greater opportunity struggle with gaps in information, uncertainty related to policies and practice and even the occasional resistance they experience within their own institutional settings. In conversations with teachers, counselors and community advocates we often found that they lacked the information to help students. They didn’t want to mislead them – or worse expose them to further threat – but they had nowhere to turn for guidance. Michigan’s system of colleges is especially complicated because our state institutions set their own policies and communicate their openness to immigrant and undocumented students in different ways. There is no reliable way to characterize the opportunities available to aspiring students across the entire system of community and public colleges. Every student inquiry is an isolated event, one frequently ending in frustration and uncertainty. The net effect of all this is that students are reluctant to apply to college, afraid to expose themselves (or their parents and siblings), sometimes given to not even finishing high school. The parents, teachers, counselors and community advocates that should be encouraging them forward do not know what to advise.

The guide which we collectively constructed was unique in that we: actively engaged college personnel, legal advocates and high school educators; determined what information would be most helpful to them and their students; and while building the trust that allowed us to rely on institutional representatives to give us straight answers on real prospects for student opportunity.

We had to cut through the tendency of colleges to take obscure postures or to speak in generalized terms about their openness to undocumented students. We pointed out that the lack of clarity not only played into the hands of those seeking to restrict student access, it also worked against the goals of the institutions themselves. While there was a moral issue to be considered, we made a pragmatic case for transparency. Equally important, we asked students and their counselors to tell us what information would be helpful and the form in which it was needed. We matched the release of the guide with training activities and focus groups to be as certain as we could that the information would reach those for whom it was intended.

Kresge: What strategies have been employed to ensure the guide reaches students and families?

Rebeca: MIRC, the National Forum, MCAN, and One Michigan developed a distribution plan that included the 17 institutions who attended previous meetings organized by the National Forum. We asked each institution to share the guide. Some posted it on their websites. Others shared it in their e-newsletter with other colleges, community organizations, counselors’ listservs, foster care agencies, elected officials, newsletters, or through social media. MCAN shared the guide with its 3,000+ e-news subscribers and posted it online. MCAN also plans to host a webinar this fall to review the guide with college access professionals. We also shared it with the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, based in Washington, D.C., as an example of a state-level guide. At least eight different state and regional organizations have shared this guide with their members and partners. Additionally, after the first convening, community partners suggested that we form a Facebook group page and create a listerv to communicate with each other and to reach a larger audience. The student guide has been shared over 200 times on various social media platforms.

Kresge: How has the guide been received by college access professionals and advocates? By students and families? By college leaders?

Rebeca: We have received a lot of positive feedback about the guide and its utility for students and professionals working with undocumented and DACA students. Additionally, we received recommendations to translate the guide into Spanish, which we plan to do. We have considered translating the guide into Arabic and Chinese because, based on Migration Policy Institute studies, those are the most common languages spoken at home by the undocumented population in Michigan. Our community partner Christopher W. Tremblay, director of external engagement at MCAN, recently shared that his team is thrilled that the guide has been updated to reflect current practices and provides guidance for navigating the college enrollment processes in Michigan.

Kresge: Beyond providing valuable information for students and families, how has the guide catalyzed support for Michiganders who are undocumented?

Rebeca: Updating the guide is one project the group identified. Other projects include improving institutional support for undocumented and DACA students through tuition equity, financial aid, and social services support. We also want to track state and national policies that affect undocumented and DACA students and affirmatively take a stand on those issues. We recognize that these students face different challenges and we want to help support them to ensure their best chance for success. Since updating the guide, our group of collaborators decided to create the Michigan Coalition for Undocumented Student Success. We have identified leadership positions that will organize meetings, serve as liaisons to sub-committee leads, and coordinate external communication. Sub-committee leads will stay informed of local, state, and national policies related to undocumented and DACA student populations, update the coalition on policy changes and provide action steps, as appropriate. We are particularly focused on tracking institutional practices and policies in Michigan affecting undocumented and DACA students and will advocate for best practices across the state.

Kresge: Are there plans to update the guide each year? If so, how might you enhance future editions?

Rebeca: The Coalition will likely update the guide regularly because our organizations are committed to this issue and together, we have collective resources. The updates will be driven by the feedback we receive from those utilizing the guide – students, parents, and professionals working with undocumented and DACA students. Because the guide is digital only, it makes it easy and efficient to make updates, especially as Michigan colleges and universities modify their policies.

Kresge: Please describe the National Forum’s support for the creation of the guide.

John: The National Forum has been active in this area for over a decade. Most of our previous efforts have been directed to national issues and influencing system-wide change.  Our previous research reports, widely shared, had documented the inconsistency and significant confusion across the U.S. higher education system and we had worked with national associations to influence a greater commitment to undocumented student access. We were aware of the intentional obfuscation characterizing many colleges and universities that expressed sympathy for affected students but feared political reprisals if they publicly adopted inclusive policies. We knew this to be a real problem in sorting out where commitment and resistance was to be found.

We initially studied this as a problem of public policy and were only secondarily aware of how this situation affected students and educators. This changed as we began working with organized student groups and as graduate students came to join our project from across the country. As we understood more of what was happening, we provided better information on our site uLead even as we realized that to reach the level of detail needed to address the problem we had to be far more localized. With that known, we approached the Kresge Foundation for support of an effort focused in Michigan.

Our doctoral and master’s degree students, aided by several undergraduate DACA students, organized a formal research activity that investigated policies and practices—both explicit and unannounced—at the public community and four-year colleges and universities in the state. This research became the foundation for the Guide.

We also organized the first meetings of an alliance of educators and community advocates who are committed to making this information useful and widely available while working to build support for more inclusive policies across the state system. We continue to work for change at the national level and are depended upon for policy research regarding policy trends and institutional practices across the states. We now have an example of how one state can organize to serve these students even in the absence of supportive federal or state policies.

I cannot stress enough how important it has been to have students who have taken up this issue and formed the nucleus of our research teams. Many of them have been DACA students but not all. Most are motivated by a strong commitment to social justice and want their graduate studies to provide them with an opportunity to serve others and promote a more just society.

Catalina Ormsby, associate director for the Center for Education Outreach at the University of Michigan, discusses best practices for advising DACA students. National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good

Kresge: In what ways has the National Forum shaped the field’s understanding of the unique challenges facing undocumented students in Michigan and nationwide?

John: Starting in 2007, the National Forum began an organizing effort to alert higher education leaders to a new tactic in a familiar strategy. Efforts originating in state legislatures were being directed toward challenging the traditional rights of colleges and universities (recognized in law) to decide who should attend their institutions. The target of this effort was to be undocumented students and the states were, in effect, making decisions based on citizenship status – previously a federal designation. The pressure was rhetorical, in some places judicial, and we appealed to educators to hold fast to their rights to decide who their institutions should enroll.

This specific framing gave us the agency to convene meetings and conferences across the country. We did this in collaboration with professional associations, other institutional partners and with the help of a few foundations.

Collectively we all faced the problem that we were operating not in one policy environment but in 50 or more. This made organizing difficult at any other level than the federal executive and congressional levels and by this time it was clear that action of the sort described in the DREAM Act was unlikely – the threats were in the states. We took up the task of investigating the various policies operating within the states and institutionally.

We also worked to develop partnerships between institutional groups. Two major organizations now exist. One is the President’s Alliance, referenced by Rebeca, which has over 400 members committed to maintaining opportunities for immigrant and international students. The other is a consortium of community colleges with a generally similar purpose. Throughout the last ten years we have been in close partnership with the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education and other constituency groups representing Latinx interests. We serve as their research partner especially when they are involved in state level actions to protect students or institutions.

Not to be overlooked is the role of students in this effort. The graduate students who have led this effort are “safe” for the time being because they have completed their undergraduate educations and are at a graduate institution that supports them. Many are from families where one or another sibling has no such assurances and several of our students had to fight through significant challenges to get to this point in their educational careers. These students often present our research and help contextualize the situations we are describing. Often starting with shaky voices, they have grown in courage and in sophistication as they have become public spokespersons for this issue. All of them deserve praise and recognition for their dedication to fairness and opportunity.

“Applying to school without navigating those kinds of hurdles is hard enough.” Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez

Kresge: Rebeca, how can college access professionals in other states begin the process of creating a similar guide?

Rebeca: Coalition-building was key to creating and updating this guide. There are many organizations and institutions that care about serving undocumented and DACA students. The challenge is bringing everyone together to discuss the issues these students are facing, what can be done to relieve them, and find the resources to follow through.  College access professionals and students in different states have a better understanding of what content would be useful to students in their states and must work together to tailor resources. For example, one real challenge for these students in Michigan, is accessing post-secondary education in a state where tuition and financial aid policies that are not uniform. Applying to school without navigating those kinds of hurdles is hard enough, so the goal is to help relieve that stress by compiling the research and making it easily accessible. Once potential collaborators are identified, information and resource-sharing is crucial to divide the workload. It is also important to recognize the expertise different organizations and institutions have and ways in which that can enhance a similar guide.