Names have been changed to protect the privacy and security of those interviewed.
On Nov. 8, 2016, freshman Anthony Wilson was sitting with a group of about 15 other students in the Chavis House at Washington and Lee University, all eyes glued to the television. It was election night. Some of them held bowls of soup, others watched the New York Times polls on their phones, whispered to their friends, or held their hands over their open mouths.
Wilson was pensive about the election results himself, with his own status as an undocumented immigrant on the forefront of his mind. He waited, watching, until he realized the votes were leaning in an unexpected direction. He slipped out, walked across campus and climbed the stairs to his dorm room in the Graham-Lees Hall. He needed to be alone when the candidate who had threatened to take away his ability to work, study and live in the United States without fear was elected president.
During his campaign, President Donald Trump threatened to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. As of 2016, this would strand about 740,000 young undocumented people like Wilson without opportunities otherwise denied to them, according to U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“The conversation and issues that occurred in the fall did, I think, bring awareness to us and I think nationally,” said Jason Rodocker, the associate dean of students and the dean for first-year experience at Washington and Lee University. “It caught everyone’s attention.”
Undocumented students find an opportunity for free higher education at Washington and Lee that they can’t access at public universities. But once they arrive on campus, they still are barred from certain aspects of college life because of their citizenship status and, in some cases, the university’s inability to communicate with them about their concerns.
Study and research abroad is extremely risky, even with the program’s travel provision of advance parole. Many of them come from low-income families limited by their citizenship status but aren’t eligible for federal funding for research or internships. To renew their two-year work permit through DACA, the federal immigration office closest to Lexington is either Charleston, West Virginia, or Fairfax, Virginia, both roughly three hours away. That’s an issue if they don’t have a car or the $495 for the renewal fee and potentially additional service fees. If it isn’t processed, it could affect a student’s scholarship, their ability to work and their security in the United States.
Jane Davis, a recent W&L graduate, was on the pre-med track while enrolled at the university and wanted to take advantage of the university’s ample opportunities to study abroad early on. But her faculty advisor encouraged her to stay on campus.
“If anything happened, she wasn’t sure who would help me,” Davis said.
Peter Nicholes, ’17, was not eligible for advance parole and could not travel internationally. He talked about how professors would advise him to study abroad and he had to explain that he couldn’t. During his sophomore year, student activities led a spring break trip to Montreal but he couldn’t attend.
“My girlfriend went on it, but I couldn’t go,” Nicholes said. “It’s not a huge deal, but that kind of bothered me.”
After that experience, he sat down with the director of student activities to make break trips domestic and more inclusive.
“Every administrator cares, and you can talk to any administrator or professor, if you’re comfortable, about your concerns,” Nicholes said.
He was also on a pre-med track until he dropped it.
“Not being able to find opportunities for research and internships in the medical field was a big factor,” he said.
A national conversation about undocumented students in higher education began after the presidential election. Pomona College initiated a petition in support of DACA in November, signed by more than 600 college and university presidents. Then-W&L president Kenneth Ruscio was one of them.
Rodocker said he was tasked with finding out if any undocumented students attended the university and coordinating with admissions and administration on how to provide resources for them. He said there is no current record of the number of undocumented students that attend W&L.
“One thing I have learned is how much additional effort an undocumented student has to do to be documented or go through the right process,” Rodocker said.
He said that he would refer undocumented students to Professor David Baluarte, the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the W&L School of Law.
“We’re not experts, but we wanted to be prepared if a DACA student did come to us,” Rodocker said. “We are excellent referral agents.”
Davis said that after the election, she reached out to her advisor to forward her request to make the university a sanctuary school to administrators but that she never heard back from the administration.
“W&L is a very peculiar place,” she said.
Wilson said during this time, he felt a heightened sense of fear of losing DACA, not being able to study abroad, losing his work-study permit and not even feeling safe enough to drive.
“I felt a sense of hopelessness here,” he said. “The only people who knew anything were back at home, and I wasn’t able to go home.”
He said he contacted faculty and administrators for possible resources and advice during his first semester, even before the election. He approached Rodocker but said that Rodocker wasn’t well-informed about DACA and didn’t answer his questions, only asking how he was doing three months later.
“It’s a difficult circle to navigate,” Wilsonvsaid. “It’s just a loop of people directing you to other people without actually giving you helpful information.”
Davis echoed a similar experience with the administration during her four years at the university.
“I think they understand it’s hard and that we’re not like the typical student,” she said. “I think it was just a lot of misinformation or maybe just not enough information for the administration to be that supportive.”
Davis added that there were many times that she felt alone.
“One of my biggest concerns was moving to Lexington and thinking, ‘God, I’m going to be the only one here,’” she said.
Nicholes also talked about a general sense of fear that followed him throughout his time at W&L.
“In college, it was more, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to graduate, and if I do, I don’t know if I’ll have to leave and I don’t want to leave the U.S,’” hebsaid.
Barriers from their citizenship status surfaced for Nicholes, Wilson and Davis when they started applying for college.
Nicholes said he didn’t have DACA at the time of their college application processes and he highly considered a scholarship offer from a local university. But then he discovered QuestBridge, a program for low-income students that partners with 31 colleges and universities that commit to accepting undocumented students across the United States with scholarships, according to the website.
Nicholes was a match for W&L, which means that he received a full-ride scholarship. Wilson’s college application process was similar.
“I decided to go with Washington and Lee because of the QuestBridge match process,” Wilson said. “The academics here are more than I could ask for.”
Sally Stone Richmond, the vice president for admissions and financial aid, said that QuestBridge provides an implicit knowledge of accessibility to higher education, including for undocumented students.
“The QuestBridge program really helped diversify the socioeconomic pool, and we want to continue to build on that momentum,” she said. “We’re going to fund an admitted student regardless of their citizenship status.”
Davis didn’t have DACA during high school and wasn’t eligible for FAFSA. Unaware of W&L’s existence at first, she discovered the university through QuestBridge and first visited W&L during Johnson weekend.
“I just remember it being a very positive experience,” she said.
She said that the Johnson scholarship, which covered full tuition, room and board as well as other expenses, allowed her to save enough money for her medical school applications and interviews.
Professor Florinda Ruiz, the director of the university’s creative writing program, teaches a writing class on immigrant voices. An immigrant from Spain, she works with immigrant families in the Lexington courts and schools.
Ruiz referred to a program at Harvard College called Act on a Dream, which released “Documenting the Pathway to College,” a 29-page document on the college application process and the mentorship program for undocumented students.
“If Harvard has this, why doesn’t our administration?” Ruiz said.
“Our practice has been more about connecting with those students individually,” Richmond said.
Wilsonsaid he had seen similar resources at other colleges and universities before arriving at W&L.
“I came in wishing for resources for undocumented students like I had seen at other campuses,” Wilson said.
Rodocker said initiatives would be more individually based.
“It’s pretty much on them to reach out to us on their own,” Rodocker said.
Undocumented students must self-report for anyone within the administration to know of their status or find resources for them. They aren’t registered as international students, Ruiz said. When asked, Center for International Education Director Mark Rush referred to the international student advisor, Amy Richwine, as a resource for students covered by the DACA program. But Richwine said she did not work directly with undocumented or DACA students.
“No one seemed to have an idea, in terms of faculty working in the international department,” Wilson said about reaching out to administration after the election. “Undocumented students are in a weird place where we don’t fit in the international or the U.S. citizen category.”
Davis offered a suggestion for creating a more supportive approach at the university.
“There isn’t awareness between the DACA students,” she said. “Something that would help would be just letting the DACA students know of each other.”
She gave advice for incoming and current undocumented students.
“Before the election, I would’ve said, ‘Don’t be afraid to share your story,’” she said. “But after the election, I think I would switch to, ‘Don’t give up and keep going’… We’ve been here a long time and I think we’re going to stay.”
On the verge of graduation, Nicholes provided his perspective as well.
“Don’t let it get to you,” he said. “Just because you’re undocumented doesn’t mean you can’t do most of the things or all that citizens can do.”
Although Wilson has three years of college ahead of him, he gave advice for other students in a similar situation.
“Ask questions and be informed rather than trying to hide and remain in the shadows,” he said. “If there’s something you don’t get answered, take action and voice your opinion because your voice will be heard no matter if it’s immediate or it takes a while.”