Community Funds Scholarship for Undocumented Students

Leila Miller

After sustained student activism, the College is beginning to develop resources for undocumented students, who often face financial and emotional strain and require more institutional support than those who are documented.

Sophomore Zury Gutierrez-Avila, co-chair of Obies for Undocumented Inclusion, said that the school currently lacks the community support and education for undocumented students to feel comfortable on campus.

“A lot of people see immigration and undocumented issues as hypothetical,” she said. “It’s a very untalked-about issue. There isn’t really a place where undocumented students can go.”

This may be starting to change. In September, Oberlin announced a partnership with Golden Door Scholars, a nonprofit that provides financial aid to undocumented undergraduate students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, a policy that exempts undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 16 from deportation.

A faculty-sponsored Winter Term this year will focus on researching the resources available for undocumented students at other liberal arts colleges and possible policies for Oberlin. A crowdfunding campaign organized by students and the Office of Development to fund a scholarship for undocumented students is around $8,000 away from the $50,000 it needs to be endowed. Endowed funds exist in perpetuity.

Responding to rising student activism over the last few years, Julio Reyes, the Latinx community coordinator at the Multicultural Resource Center, has pushed for administrative support for undocumented students.

“They are worried about the constant fear of being detained and asked for identification,” Reyes said. “Being at Oberlin offers some kind of safety net, but [the fear] is still there. Navigating the challenges of college if you’re thinking of your parents being deported adds an extra layer of tension.”

In addition to bringing speakers to campus, Reyes helped facilitate a meeting in October for faculty and staff from the divisions of student life to discuss ways to offer support. According to Reyes, clear access to resources prevents students from having to drop hints about their status in order to receive help.

“It invites people to find different allies, even if they don’t want to disclose their identity or status,” he said.

Undocumented students, regardless of their DACA status, are not eligible for federal financial aid and in many states, including Ohio, may not pay in-state tuition at public universities. Last year, Oberlin changed its admissions policy to consider undocumented students as domestic, rather than international, applicants. However, in an article by Oberlin Communications staff, administrators held that, in practice, they already had been treating undocumented applicants as domestic students.

According to Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Debra Chermonte, Oberlin, in partnership with Golden Door Scholars, may offer up to two scholarships a year to undocumented students with DACA status, starting with this year’s applicants. Once students are admitted to Golden Door Scholars program, they can apply to one of its partner schools. GDS will provide two scholarships of $7,500 each per year, and Oberlin plans to fully meet demonstrated financial need.

“One of the outcomes as a partner with GDS is to establish a small cohort of undocumented students over the next several years,” she wrote in an email to the Review, adding that in order to maintain the scholarship, recipients must maintain a 3.0 grade point average, participate in GDS’ mentorship program and attend a career development summit during the summer.

Kacey Grantham, the executive director of Golden Door Scholars, said the South Carolina-based organization aims to promote economic mobility for its scholars.

“We like to partner with the career center of our partners’ schools and try to figure out how to help them find the right job and internship opportunity that will get them to where they want to go after graduation,” she said.

According to Chermonte, all undocumented students can still apply to receive financial aid from Oberlin, but students with DACA status will have priority.

Undocumented students at schools with larger undocumented communities may experience a different atmosphere than that in Oberlin. Northeastern Illinois University has grown to provide more resources for its undocumented students, including a staff member who heads their Undocumented Students Project, ally trainings for students, faculty and staff and events where students can publicly reveal their undocumented status. Several undocumented students from NEIU visited Oberlin last year.

Heriberto Bustos, a former president for NEIU’s student group for undocumented students, graduated in the spring. He focused on creating a safe space for students to talk about their identity.

“I felt at times that if I didn’t have enough power to change certain policies or resources to pay for tuition, I’d still be there and listen to their stories,” he said.

Bustos said the staff members available to undocumented students on campus at NEIU are invaluable. “We face a lot of emotional and psychological distress being undocumented — not only for ourselves but for our family,” he said.

Bustos said that during his visit to Oberlin, talking about one’s undocumented status “felt like it was a taboo.” While meeting with Oberlin students, one student admitted to Bustos that she was also undocumented and very scared.

“‘Who should I tell? Who should I go to about my situation?’” he recalls her asking. “I told her to keep on going [to Oberlin] even though there aren’t enough resources there.”

He decided to tell people he was undocumented after realizing the emotional burden of hiding his status. Friends would invite him to travel abroad, and he would not be able to tell them why he could not go.

“It’s something that I am — why should I have to keep that to myself?” he said. “I just didn’t want this to affect me more than it already was, so I just started talking about it and being more free.”

Brenda Bedolla, a senior at NEIU, first publicly revealed her status at a training session for allies of undocumented students.

“I think for many years I was very afraid to disclose my status, and I felt that was because I didn’t feel safe, and if I disclosed my identity, people wouldn’t be able to help me,” she said. “I also realized at that moment that for all these years I was kind of reaping the benefits of the work other activists were doing, and I felt it’s my turn.”

Student activism has driven Oberlin’s support for undocumented students. In October 2013, a coalition of students interrupted a Board of Trustees meeting to present a letter of demands, including a scholarship program for undocumented students. The program received a positive response, and students set up a crowdfunding platform for the scholarship with the Office of Development.

“It was being very persistent and taking direct action,” said Ana Robelo, OC ’15, who led the crowdfunding initiative. “Sometimes [we got] backlash for that, but that’s what has moved us the few steps forward that we have.”

Robelo attended Oberlin’s study away Border Studies Program and attributes her passion for this issue to being a Latina immigrant herself and growing up near a large Mexican-American community in Orange County, but she says anyone can become educated.

“If you don’t know people who come from immigrant backgrounds, question why that is; examine what you are exposing yourself to,” she said.

Many NEIU and Oberlin students agree that creating a community of support is a work in progress and difficult in a school with few undocumented students.

“Like any other social justice [cause], you’re going to get pushback from people because it’s different, they’re not used to it, and they probably have all these negative misconceptions,” Bedolla said. “But by educating people, you can really make a difference. If the institution were to demonstrate their support, I think they would attract more undocumented students. You want to go to a place where you know you are going to be treated well, with dignity and respect.”