How Two Black DACA and Undocumented Students Navigate College

Black undocumented students experience unique challenges in attending college. Dive into the stories of two students' journeys through college.
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Updated on April 11, 2023
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  • More than 12% of undocumented students identify as Black and/or African American.
  • The intersection of race and immigration status can uniquely impact college experiences.
  • Colleges can support Black undocumented students by providing resources and safe spaces.

In the U.S., the voices of Black undocumented students are sometimes unheard. Other times, their experiences are left out entirely.

Black people account for 12.5% of undocumented college students, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal. Black undocumented students hail from regions worldwide, including Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Below, we share the stories of two Black undocumented students — Olivia Boadi Sarfo, a student at Meredith College, and Matthew Brown, a student at Queens University of Charlotte. Olivia and Matthew describe the challenges they experience as Black undocumented students. They also offer tips and advice for other college students.

Choosing the Right College for You

"My college path has not been the regular one we are all familiar with," Olivia told BestColleges. She found out about her undocumented status during high school. She couldn't get a driver's license or a summer job like many of her friends.

"Through research, I also found out that I was not going to be able to afford college whatsoever," Olivia said. "I knew a four-year institution was going to be financially draining on my family, so I decided to look more into community colleges while also applying to four-year colleges."

Olivia attended a community college for three years before transferring to a four-year college. "Finances have always been a struggle for my family and I," she continued. "But entering a four-year institution made it even worse — I was at the verge of completely stopping school."

"The most important factor in my college choice process was affordability," said Olivia. She was accepted into the Golden Door Scholarship (GDS) program, which offers mentorship, guidance, and financial support to undocumented students hoping to attend college. GDS gave Olivia a full tuition scholarship to Meredith College.

"I researched Meredith College and fell in love with the campus and the environment I was seeing," Olivia shared. Meredith College offered all of Olivia's academic interests and, with tuition covered by GDS, she could focus on finding a school that met her needs.

Matthew found Queens University of Charlotte through the Golden Door Scholarship program as well. In considering which college was right for him, Matthew assessed his criteria. "Some of the most important factors in my college process included location, accessibility to financial aid, and potential majors that aligned with what I want to study."

"While going through all the options for school, I realized that Queens had opportunities that other schools just didn't have," Matthew shared. "I had been offered direct admission to Queens' nursing program, which is a highly coveted opportunity." To top it all off for Matthew, "Queens just felt right … and I'm glad I made the right decision."

How Race Impacts College Experiences

"As a Black student, my racial identity has definitely influenced my campus experience," Olivia explained. She named some of the hardships she has faced at her predominantly white college and how her undocumented status makes certain situations even more difficult.

"I used to be crippled by fear because I thought that if I did anything racially profiling and if anyone on that campus found out about my status, they would report me to the authorities and everything would go downhill from there," said Olivia.

The fears Olivia expressed about her immigration status are worries for other undocumented students as well. "Usually, I go through these mental processes where I weigh out the situation to see if I should share my thoughts on the matters being discussed or not. It is almost like walking on eggshells all the time because of my racial identity in addition to my immigration status."

For Matthew, the feeling of being silenced as a Black student shows up regularly. "I attend a predominantly white institution, so there are not many students who either look like me or have a similar experience that I do."

"Being at a predominantly white institution, often means that my white counterparts are the ones in the leadership positions," Matthew shared. "[Those] voices tend to hold more power than the voice of a student in my position."

"As a Black student, I find that my voice is somewhat silenced," Matthew went on to say. "My campus has had many conversations surrounding race and racial healing, and I had the opportunity to uncover the history of racism as it pertains to the founding of my university."

Racial healing can be a communal act. Colleges and universities that center student learning about race and offer ways for students to connect can help students like Matthew and other students of color feel more comfortable on campus.

Undocumented Students Encounter Unique Differences

In addition to feeling silenced and fearful, Matthew and Olivia shared that being undocumented poses challenges to their college experiences. Matthew explained that his background as a DACA student differs from the experiences of other college students.

"Many opportunities that I want to take advantage of aren't available to me because of my status," Matthew said. "Being on DACA makes traveling and studying abroad a lot more difficult."

Olivia described some of the ways her experience as an undocumented student differs from others.

One of the many things I have come to realize is that the life of a DACA or undocumented student comes with a different kind of struggle.

— Olivia Boadi Sarfo

Quotation mark

While every undocumented student may not have the same experiences, some similarities are likely to exist. Olivia considered this when she shared, "I felt like the good grades that were getting my friends scholarships were getting me rejections. It might differ from peers that share the same status … but our rejections, struggles, and experiences can be similar in nature."

How Colleges Can Support Undocumented Students

"Colleges and universities can better support undocumented students by having resources and knowing of resources that benefit them," offered Olivia.

According to Matthew, "colleges and universities can better support undocumented students [by] creating safe spaces for them to be heard."

Olivia shared an example of lacking support from a previously attended institution. "The four-year institution I attended before required that I get internship hours before graduating, but literally left me with no resources because of my status. I could have completed all other requirements and really gotten stuck without graduating because of my status — this should not be the case."

Safe spaces for undocumented students can make a world of difference on college campuses. As Matthew explained, "Oftentimes, I think that because those students who are undocumented are usually students of color, they tend to be overlooked and their voices are silenced. Creating a safe space … and demanding that the university administration find ways to support is key for undocumented students to feel successful."

Olivia provided what she sees as a simple solution:

"The commonality for populations on campuses should just be students. That is the only status colleges and universities should know and operate on. There should be a sense of urgency for DACA and undocumented students just like there is for students without those statuses and identities."

Advice for and From Black Undocumented Students

"Don't limit yourself." Advice from Olivia is simply stated but deeply meaningful. She elaborated on her meaning, "It is easy to get in that mindset of 'I cannot achieve this because of my status and/or identity.'"

But the truth is, as Olivia pointed out, "You are more than your immigration status, and you have a lot more to offer outside of the margins society has placed you in."

Quotation mark

"Don't let your identity and experiences define what you can and cannot do," advised Matthew. "Sure, there are opportunities that may not be available to you because of your experience, but that doesn't mean that you cannot succeed."

"Find ways to tap into opportunities that allow you to delve deeper into what you're passionate about," Matthew continued. "And as people see your dedication to what you do, as they see your persistence and perseverance to succeed, they will elevate you to places you never thought you'd be.

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With Advice From:

Portrait of Olivia Baodi Sarfo

Olivia Baodi Sarfo

Olivia Boadi Sarfo is a second-year student and psychology and biology major at Meredith College. Currently, she is interning at a visiting nurse agency in Massachusetts. Some of her interests are community service, exercising, spending quality time with her family, and watching Korean dramas. Ultimately, Olivia's passion is serving others and being an instrument of change wherever she finds herself.

She also loves mental health topics and advocating for change. Her goal is to become a neuropsychologist who focuses mainly on the younger generations.

Portrait of Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown is a first-year student attending Queens University. He is pursuing a major in nursing with a minor in Spanish. Matthew is a recipient of the Golden Door Scholarship — a full-ride, four-year scholarship for undocumented and DACA students. Matthew loves music and has a heart for people. He enjoys spending time with his family and friends.

Matthew is very involved in his community, especially when it comes to fighting for justice for minority groups. He has taken an active role in the NAACP chapter at his university, and he is working with the International House in Charlotte to advocate for immigrants within the Charlotte area.