How to Advise and Support Undocumented Students

How to Advise and Support Undocumented Students
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By Staff Writers

Published on August 27, 2021

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College life can be tough. For undocumented students, having professionals on campus who are aware of and trained to address their needs is crucial. In the following interview, Hugo Garcia Villa talks about the different ways he approaches working with undocumented students and some of the common challenges they face. He also describes how on-campus professionals can be a resource to undocumented students.

Interview With Expert Hugo Garcia Villa


Hugo Garcia is a coordinator for Leadership Without Borders at the University of Washington — a program established in 2015 that works to serve and empower undocumented students. Hugo has worked with youth from different backgrounds, such as when he lived abroad in Costa Rica where he studied and worked as an English tutor. Hugo has continuously worked with underrepresented communities and has worked as a bilingual youth counselor for foster kids living in residential programs. Hugo has served as a crisis prevention intervention trainer for foster programs and has worked on citizenship campaigns for the City of Seattle. Hugo is a proud son of Mexican immigrants and is an advocate for issues surrounding social justice and accessibility. Growing up in eastern Washington, Hugo understands the importance of higher education and is a first-generation graduate from the University of Idaho. When Hugo is not working, he is outdoors hiking and chasing trails, discovering many breathtaking viewpoints of the Pacific Northwest.

1. What are the biggest concerns you hear from undocumented students in your office?

I can't point to one specific issue and there are a variety of challenges that concern undocumented students. With my students, we talk about legal issues they may have and mental health situations they are working through. Financial aid is another big priority that I discuss with students.

Because of the number of issues, it's important that there are multiple professionals and departments on campus that are capable of understanding undocumented students' issues and working with the students to overcome their challenges. Fortunately, I work with a great group of partners and departments across campus, and the University of Washington has worked really hard to reflect that in its mission and practice.

2. How do you approach advising and supporting undocumented students?

Immigration can be a very complex issue, and when you factor guidance or advising for students, it can get very complicated. Admittedly, there are times when I don't know all the answers. There are so many scenarios where students come into my office that have health problems and cannot access healthcare or they need emergency financial aid. But in the moment, you utilize your contacts, resources, and partnerships. We collaborate with King County Public Health offices, speak with the financial aid office, or connect students with resources if we do not have it on our campus.

Other times, the issue may be obtaining additional employment for living expenses and helping students prepare for interviews or refer them to employers with supportive policies for DACA students. Really, when it comes down to it, it is about recognizing the humanity in every student. I won't always have the answers to everything, but because I know their experience and the heavy nature of their hardships, I am able to pull all the levers within my reach to make sure that undocumented students have access to what they need to be successful.

3. How do you provide support to parents and family members of undocumented students?

My office is situated in the Samuel E. Kelly Cultural Center, which is part of the Office of Minority Affairs. As a result, we support a lot of diverse cultural groups and student communities. However, each program has its own resources to support specific student populations like undocumented students.

Furthermore, I have the opportunity to work with first-year programs and transfer student events, and inform students about my office and services we offer. One of the other events we attend and facilitate are family sessions where we talk about Leadership Without Borders. We tell parents about our department, that we are here to support your student, and reassure them that we are there to advise and support their student.

A lot of our students commute to campus and still reside with family so they are just as much a part of the college experience. Because of this, it is important that I am present at these events, connecting with undocumented students that are first generation and at the intersection of different social identities and building community for the student and their family.

4. What advice would you give to a first-time undocumented college student?

Take advantage of all the resources available to you. These students come to college with a wealth of talents or skills, whether they speak multiple languages, have interests that could be turned into side income, or connections to community members that can offer free services that are useful to them.

On campus, you will have the opportunity to connect with people from different backgrounds that you can learn from, as well as students that share your same identities and struggles. No matter the person, they may become a part of your community, including the staff and students in Leadership Without Borders.

I am not immune to the experiences of these students, so I can relate to all their challenges. Just like them, I had tough times, but I knew I was not alone because I had the support of my peers, family, and organizations on and off campus. Similar to me, they are not alone and they are more capable of success and overcoming their doubts and difficulties to achieve their dreams.

Feature Image: OLIVIER DOULIERY / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

Learn from an expert about how Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) support the needs and educational success of Hispanic and Latino/a students. Learn about the concept of hyperdocumentation and how undocumented students navigate belonging, worthiness, and intolerance in college. When it comes to race and status, AAPI undocumented students encounter many challenges. Read this interview to learn more about their experiences.