An Undocumented Student’s Uphill Road to College and Career Success
As a DACA recipient in Tennessee, my higher education journey wasn’t easy. I didn’t qualify for in-state tuition because my state prohibits undocumented students from accessing it. Never mind that I graduated with honors from an East Tennessee high school, which was part of a school system that I had attended since I was six years old. Like many other undocumented students, I turned to a private institution, since private colleges often provide more financial aid to undocumented students than public state institutions do. Thanks to the Equal Chance for Education Scholarship, I was able to attend Maryville College and graduate. But getting there was just the first of many struggles over the next four years.
I’d always thought college held the answers on how to navigate the world, how to get a job, how to become a functioning adult. What I didn’t know was that my college wasn’t equipped to support students like me, whose immigration status was in limbo, thanks to laws that change depending on the mood of state or federal politicians.
College is different for undocumented students
As a recent report on undocumented students by Ed Trust shows, the financial burden of paying for college without financial aid or scholarships is often too much for undocumented students and their families to bear, no matter how hard they struggle to make ends meet. Undocumented students often work multiple jobs just to stay afloat. When I was in college, I juggled various jobs on campus and in the child-care, retail, and the service sectors in between attending classes, doing homework, and participating in numerous campus clubs and activities.
I was one of the lucky ones. Some of my peers couldn’t keep up with the high costs of tuition and attendance — tuition is almost $38,000 per year at Maryville — and permanently withdrew from college. Others took a gap year (or years) to save up enough money to finish school and, therefore, are unable to graduate with their entering class. Without access to in-state tuition or state or federal aid, paying for college out of pocket becomes prohibitive. Private scholarships to institutions like the one I attended are incredibly competitive. Few are open to undocumented students and rarely are they renewable for more than one year.
1 in every 50 students enrolled in higher education is undocumented
Despite all this, many undocumented individuals aspire to earn a college degree. My alma mater saw a spike in undocumented undergraduate enrollment beginning with my incoming college freshman class. In a short amount of time, the number of undocumented students jumped from single to double digits, and the number of undocumented students continues to grow. But many of the newer undocumented students lack the protections of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) status that students like me and others in my class had. This rise in the number of undocumented students, including those without DACA, has posed new challenges for campus faculty and staff, who have suddenly become aware of the hurdles — big and small — that these students encounter regularly.
The free flu and COVID-19 vaccination clinics, which the college hosted every semester in partnership with Walgreens, were a case in point. It wasn’t until an undocumented student tried to get vaccinated that campus staff realized that Walgreens required students to show proof of health insurance to receive a free vaccine. (This, even though the college neither provides health insurance to students, nor requires that students have it to enroll.) Undocumented residents can’t get state health insurance coverage through Tennessee Medicaid. This meant that many undocumented students couldn’t get vaccinated on campus.
The lack of career or experiential learning opportunities for undocumented students was another barrier in higher education. During career and job fairs, it was difficult to find employers who were friendly toward undocumented students. Many employers ask applicants to provide a Social Security number and are unfamiliar with the process for hiring an undocumented student as an independent contractor using a taxpayer identification number (TIN). This means it’s up to undocumented students to find out which jobs, fellowships, and internships are open, despite our immigration status. We turned to each other for help in navigating career and internship opportunities, with little support from our school, which lacked resources for undocumented students. Campus advisers did what they could and often sought advice from undocumented upperclassmen on how to help undocumented freshmen. Staff and faculty advisers, unfortunately, had no recourse. While nearly every college campus in the U.S. has a Title IX coordinator, few colleges have a designated staff member to support undocumented students, even though 1 in every 50 students enrolled in higher education is undocumented.
Despite such roadblocks, there were 10 undocumented students In my graduating class of 2022, including me, who managed to graduate. That is the biggest cohort of graduating undocumented students in our school’s history.
Life after graduation looks different for undocumented grads, too
Undocumented people’s immigration status often limits options, even after receiving a degree. I currently work for a nonprofit as a college and career access coach at an inner-city school, where I help high school students from low-income backgrounds plan for their future. I’m also employed part time as a youth advocacy fellow at The Education Trust in Tennessee, where I work with students throughout the state. I am in the process of creating a website with resources that support undocumented students and their allies in Tennessee.
Some of my undocumented peers, however, have had to put their dreams on hold. A friend of mine graduated in 2021 and wanted to become a Spanish teacher but couldn’t, because Tennessee state law prohibited undocumented individuals from obtaining a teaching credential at the time. In fact, until summer 2022, DACA recipients couldn’t get any professional licenses. Now that there’s a new state law that that expands access to undocumented people to obtain professional licenses, she once again hopes to get her teaching credential when she can save up enough money to take the certification exams.
Another former classmate is fully undocumented, without the protections of DACA. He’s been working with his family in construction since graduation while researching graduate schools. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in hopes that by the time he finishes, there will be a pathway to citizenship or DACA reopens. While some former classmates with DACA, like me, have gone on to work in various professional fields, our anxieties about our immigration status remain, given DACA’s fragile state. And employers are sometimes hesitant to hire undocumented people because of DACA’s legal uncertainties. That’s unfortunate for us and for them, especially given employers’ need for more college-educated workers.
States should expand access to higher education and employment opportunities to undocumented students instead of block it
Education is supposed to be for everyone — and access to college shouldn’t hinge on a person’s immigration status. State and federal lawmakers must ensure that undocumented students can access a higher education and pursue their chosen career. Whether a state provides benefits such as in-state tuition, state financial aid, professional/commercial licenses, and state Medicaid to undocumented individuals can make all the difference to those students. Without such benefits, many of undocumented students can’t afford a higher education or pursue careers that would allow us to provide for ourselves and our families.
State leaders have the power to pass policies that make college more accessible for undocumented students and can appropriate annual funds to state higher education institutions to support undocumented students, train educators on how best to support undocumented students, and hire designated staff to support them so that the onus of being successful as undocumented students isn’t solely on us. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, has the power to provide work authorization and a path to citizenship for all undocumented students and youth.
I hope my story and the stories of my classmates will inspire legislators to act. The lives of tens of thousands of undocumented students depend on it.
Alexa is a youth advocate fellow for Ed Trust in Tennessee.