Fellowships Give Undocumented Students a Chance for Work Experience

Fellowships can mirror internships in many ways. But through creative funding, they allow undocumented students to participate — and be paid.
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  • Undocumented students without DACA are often barred from participating in paid internships.
  • This means many are forced into unpaid internships or don't get to experience the benefit at all.
  • Fellowships bridge that gap, oftentimes giving these students the chance to engage in advocacy for other undocumented people.

A summer internship is a common expectation for undergraduates. But for undocumented students, internships can seem out of reach.

Paid internships require work authorization and a Social Security number — things undocumented students don't have without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. Experts say this means these students are often forced to take unpaid internships or skip out on the experience altogether.

Jessica Olivares recalls how the limitation contributed to her feeling like an outsider while enrolled in college.

"It was very lonely trying to find a way around being undocumented," she told BestColleges.

Fellowships help bridge this gap.

Olivares now co-leads the Dream Summer fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), along with Gaby Gil. Established in 2011, Dream Summer is one of the nation's longest-running fellowships aimed at supporting undocumented college students through summer programs that award $5,000 per student.

Both Olivares and Gil said their experiences with the fellowship helped set them on their current path.

What’s the Difference Between a Fellowship and an Internship?

Fellowships and internships may seem similar at face value, but the subtle differences have big impacts on accessibility.

It mainly comes down to where the money comes from.

Denise Vivar, Immigrant Student Success Center specialist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, leads the university's two fellowship programs. As part of her work, she also helps guide undocumented students to other fellowship opportunities, and her advice centers on "follow the money," she said.

Her fellowships rely on private funding, which is common among fellowships. Ultimately, whether an undocumented student can participate in a program depends on whether payment would come from an organization's normal payroll or through another source.

Gil of Dream Summer said payment is the most common obstacle organizations get stuck on. Nonprofits and organizations that receive federal funding have a difficult road to establish a fellowship legally, while private companies can do so more easily.

Additionally, internships are typically paid biweekly, while fellowships tend to be a one-time payment, Olivares said.

Orgs, States Work to Expand Fellowships Opportunities

Convincing organizations to create more fellowships can be difficult, Gil said.

"We're always trying to reach out to those doing this work, but it's quite challenging because of the bureaucracy of it," she said. "Funding needs to be more creative."

That might mean using a one-time payment for fellows rather than biweekly payments, Olivares said.

These changes are essential because Dream Summer partners with organizations to place its fellows into roles that match their career goals.

The newly established College Corps program — a paid service program in California — similarly had to get creative in order to open its doors to undocumented students.

Josh Fryday, chief service officer in California, told BestColleges that College Corps is the state's first program that includes undocumented students. His office was originally designed to oversee AmeriCorps, which is a national service program. California needed to mix in state resources to open the program to undocumented students.

"If you want to make these service opportunities for everyone, they need to actually be available to everybody," he said.

While it may seem like a logistical challenge to expand the number of fellowships, Vivar of John Jay College said she's seen programs that actually can include undocumented students but don't realize it. These are often labeled as internships. But because of the source of the funding, they can be marketed to undocumented students, too.

Often, these organizations don't realize they may be dissuading undocumented students from applying, she said.

"We need to create awareness about this topic so that they can advertise their programs," Vivar said.

Fellowships Expand Educational Equity

Both Dream Summer and the fellowships through John Jay College are open to all students, not just undocumented students.

However, they both prioritize the student population that isn't able to access traditional internships.

"We understand that they are very limited," Vivar said.

Fryday said College Corps had 500 of its 3,000 open slots dedicated to undocumented students. The program had 1,400 applications come from this student group.

Dream Summer must similarly turn away large numbers of students, which shows there is still a strong need for more fellowships. Gil said Dream Summer gets between 300 and 600 applications each year for approximately 80 available slots.

Vivar said more fellowships are needed — not only because they offer career development but because many degree programs require internship hours, a requirement fellowships meet.

Currently, undocumented students may be forced into unpaid internships, a problem compounded by the fact they often pay higher out-of-state tuition due to their legal status.

Some students may opt to drop out of college because they can't afford to take on an unpaid internship in addition to a full-time job, she added.

Fryday said students have told him College Corps has allowed them to afford living on campus or other college expenses thanks to the stipend attached to the program. At the same time, they get to develop career skills applicable to what they want to do post-graduation.