Supporting Undocumented Students at HSIs

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by Staff Writers

Updated August 19, 2022

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Supporting Undocumented Students at HSIs

According to a 2020 report by the President's Alliance, approximately 46% of Latino/a students are undocumented, while 57% of Latino/a students are eligible for the DACA program. There are many institutions across the country that admit and provide financial support for undocumented students, including Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs).

HSIs are federally designated institutions that enroll at least 25% Hispanic students each year. In this case, Hispanic is used as an umbrella term that includes students who identify as Latino/a.

To learn more about how HSIs provide support for undocumented students on campus, we spoke with Luvia Moreno, the assistant dean of students and director of Undocumented Student Resources at Northeastern Illinois University.

Interview With Career Expert Luvia Moreno

Portrait of Luvia Moreno

Luvia Moreno

Luvia Moreno has over 15 years of experience in urban higher education settings — particularly Hispanic Serving Institutions — addressing the needs of underrepresented students and their families through education, college awareness and readiness, academic support, and personal and social development, through a social justice lens. Currently, Luvia is the the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Undocumented Student Resources at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). Prior to that, Luvia served as Interim Director for Diversity and Intercultural Affairs where she oversaw intercultural programming and education focused on the intersectional identities of students. Luvia has also served as Director of Student Advocacy, focusing on issues of home and food insecurity, and as the Assistant Director for Proyecto Pa'Lante, providing academic support services to first generation Latinx students. Luvia was also the retention and transition coordinator for a Title V cooperative grant between Morton College and Governors State University.

What academic and social needs are unique to undocumented students?

In my opinion, the academic and social needs of undocumented students are those of any first-generation college student of immigrant backgroud. There are those students who excel in academics, even when their early schooling was not of the highest quality, and there are those students who may be coming to college campuses in need of developmental education and support.

Socially, part of the reason undocumented students who make it to college in part because they come with a wonderful network of allies that they and their families have cultivated over time. Early on they learned that social networks are the way to find resources, help, and information.

Whether it was a high school counselor or a teacher the students connected with, a parent group that their parent(s) joined, or an after-school/college readiness program the student sought out or was recommended to, these are invaluable resources that students come with that make them feel supported as they navigate their way into colleges and universities across the country.

Those students who come in without those social networks may feel more at a disadvantage on how to navigate college on their own. It is my job and that of every person working in the university to ensure these students feel extra supported and guided.

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What makes your work at a Hispanic-Serving Institution different from other colleges that also support undocumented students?

Hispanic-Serving Institutions were not purposefully created to support Latinx students. These institutions have become HSIs because Latinx students choose to attend these institutions given their affordability, their proximity to home, and other factors that Latinx students value or seek out.

It is up to each HSI to not only claim HSI funding given their federally designated status, but also make a concerted effort to significantly change their mission and values to ensure that Latinx students and every student on campus feels welcome and supported.

Northeastern Illinois University was the first public four-year university in Illinois to become an HSI. I was a student in the early 2000s and folks on campus already talked about how NEIU had been an HSI even before this was a popular term. But it has taken decades for us as a campus community to really understand what it means for us to be an HSI, and it is an ongoing discussion.

Nevertheless, I see day in and day out how NEIU staff and faculty really care about our students and advocate for more equitable resources. As an employee working at this HSI, this makes all the difference because I also feel supported in my work and our students see that we very much care for their success.

Nevertheless, I see day in and day out how NEIU staff and faculty really care about our students and advocate for more equitable resources. As an employee working at this HSI, this makes all the difference because I also feel supported in my work and our students see that we very much care for their success.

However, it is very important to make it clear that while most of our undocumented students may be Latinx, we also have undocumented students from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean; and because non-Latinx undocumented students may exist in smaller numbers, they can easily feel isolated and lost.

For me, as a Latina working in an HSI, it is important to always be mindful of this and to ensure that our non-Latinx undocumented students get the information and support they need, especially because they are at an HSI.

Other than your department or office, what campus resources do you recommend to undocumented students?

I always tell my students that they must take advantage of all our campus resources. The most successful students are those who use our resources, even when they think they may not need them — from tutoring to our student success programs and our multicultural center.

Certainly, some of the most needed and used resources among undocumented students are counseling services, financial aid and scholarships, student employment services, and career development.

Additionally, some of our most amazing student leaders on campus over the years have been undocumented students, so I cannot leave out Student Leadership Development as an important campus resource at Northeastern Illinois University. Undoubtedly, student clubs and organizations provide our undocumented students spaces where they can find peer support and a safe way to learn and put into practice their leadership skills.

We also have a student pantry for students to get food for themselves and their families, and the "Power Closet," which is literally a closet filled with gently used professional clothing to empower students heading to their next job interview.

I also tell my students that institutions of higher education are always a work in progress. It is their job as students to tell us how we can improve on our services. NEIU's undocumented students can and have over the years worked with the university community to break barriers, such as university policies, that may hinder their educational success.

If they do not feel there are necessary student clubs or organizations, they can petition to create new organizations. If they feel there is a need for resources, they can advocate for those resources to be brought in or created.

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