Safe space: Sierra College works to close achievement gap, help students with new undocumented center | TheUnion.com

Safe space: Sierra College works to close achievement gap, help students with new undocumented center

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

If life as an undocumented individual is difficult, it is no easier when adding the pressures of applying for, and attending, college.

Marisela Hernandez knows this as she’s helped undocumented students for three years at Sacramento City College. As of November, Hernandez has been working as the coordinator for Sierra College’s Undocumented Student Center, which opened on Jan. 31.

The center offers a variety of services, including personalized enrollment assistance, personal counseling, career and academic counseling, financial aid assistance, a student engagement center, an on-campus food pantry, free legal consultations and more.

“(The center) is part of our overall equity work to advance a framework to help students achieve their educational goals by removing barriers,” wrote Steven Baissa, Sierra College Dean of Equity, in an email to The Union.

While there’s not a physical center on Nevada County’s campus yet, one exists in Rocklin. Hernandez said legal services will arrive on the Tahoe-Truckee campus and Nevada County campus possibly as soon as Saturday.

Hernandez works with part-time assistants who help with the logistics. Their work includes UndocuAlly trainings, meant to educate faculty and administrators how to approach, and better understand, the learning styles and general difficulties associated with being undocumented on campus. Hernandez also coordinates with high school counselors and students to help them apply for college, and to dispel myths about the process.

Although there’s no way to know how many undocumented students attend Sierra College, due to efforts to protect student privacy, that doesn’t mean there isn’t much work to be done, said Hernandez.

“We’ve had 145 visits, and I’m case managing approximately 45 students,” she said, which include directly or indirectly helping.

Sierra College, in addition to 32 other colleges and universities, received money for the center through the California Campus Catalyst Fund. The three-year grant is meant to “expand support for undocumented students and their families.”

The center at Sierra College is meant to be holistic, ensuring undocumented students, like everyone else at the school, succeeds.

“It’s not only about the enrollment process,” said Hernandez of the issues impacting undocumented students, “but it’s everything. It’s stress, on top of that (and then) there’s the legal situation.”

CALIFORNIA CONTEXT

Undocumented students make up a large portion of the California Community College and university system — about 75,000 according to the Campaign for College Opportunity.

In 2001, the California State Legislature passed AB 540, allowing undocumented students and California natives the right to pay in-state tuition fees if they meet certain requirements. In 2011, the passing of the California Dream Act allowed undocumented and nonresident documented students to apply for scholarships and financial aid.

In 2017, the state legislature approved $45 million in the state budget to expand legal services for immigrants, a response to President Trump’s push to increase deportations.

And last October, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office held a week long event, including information to help undocumented students, faculty and staff better understand students’ legal rights and the financial aid available to them.

AN EASIER PIPELINE

As of 2013, the Public Policy Institute of California estimated 1,500 undocumented immigrants in Nevada County.

Much of the work of Sierra College’s undocumented center is meant to work on the front end, aiding high school students to apply for college.

“Even if the student knows all their life if they are undocumented, they don’t really understand what that means until they are applying for college,” said Hernandez. That, she said, may be the first time they realize they don’t have a social security number, which is requested on a college admission.

“The first thing you are going to think is, ‘oh, that’s not for me because I don’t qualify for this,’” she said.

There are many questions inundating the minds of undocumented students, said Hernandez, including things related to individuals with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival status, or if they are of a mixed-status family. (That is, if some of their family members are citizens but not others.) Hernandez said she tries to get teachers and counselors to push undocumented students in the right direction, even if they don’t personally have all the answers.

“There’s visas, there’s (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), there’s all these different bills and legislation, but even if you as a high school counselor may not understand all of that,” she said. “Just you understanding the importance of motivating undocumented students to say ‘hey, don’t worry about it. You can go to college. It is possible. We’ll get you to the right person.”

Sierra College’s new center is part of a broader goal of closing the achievement gaps across all student populations.

“Within 10 years, it’s Sierra College’s aim to close all of its achievement gaps across all of the different groups of students,” said Stephanie Ortiz, executive director of Sierra College’s Nevada County Campus. That goal, she said, was made by William Duncan, IV., Sierra College’s president.

It’s the college’s view that helping undocumented students is a critical part of that undertaking.

BUILT ON TRUST

Undocumented students may be in a vulnerable position when applying for college, uncertain about their future and the possible ramifications for them or their families, said Hernandez, which is why developing trust is so important.

“I think having connections with the student is important because then they understand, ‘okay, this is someone safe that I can talk to and that I can disclose myself to,’” she said, adding that students may have hour-long conversations with her without disclosing their status.

Most importantly, the coordinator tries “making sure (students) feel safe, making sure they know I’m there to help them, which is really my role,” she said.

Frequently, Hernandez helps students indirectly, educating counselors to pass on information to students with whom they already have an established relationship.

This trust is meant to feed the broader purpose of the center, said Hernandez, ensuring undocumented students receive help like everyone else on campus, and that they aren’t viewed with one, over-simplistic brush.

“We want to make sure we graduate our students and that they go on and they do great things for our nation.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.


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