Parker High School Graduate.
These are the subject matters on Cinthia Silva’s transcripts, the items that describe her in a student body of some 27,000 students. They set her apart, and they fit her into a profile.
After seven years, she plans to add University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate to the list. She’s hoping it happens this spring, but Silva’s well aware that her pathway to that goal has not been easy.
Silva is a first-generation student from a low-income family – and in her words, not a traditional student.
When Silva graduated high school in 2010, she knew she wanted to go to college. Her high school’s expectations had set her up for it. Silva and her classmates graduated knowing that if they could graduate high school, then they could graduate college. “I always had the go-to-college mindset,” she said.
Silva began taking classes at Janesville Community College, but she struggled in some classes. In high school, she had taken English as a second language; now, in college, she felt unprepared for the academic barriers she faced.
“I needed motivation,” she said. “I never feel like I belong in a classroom.”
In high school, when Silva had struggled in her classes, she knew other kids struggling too. They helped each other out. In her new setting, Silva didn’t know other students who may have been in her position. She couldn’t relate to her schoolmates.
“I didn’t want to feel stupid,” she said..
Silva also struggled to pay her tuition. In later years, she would resort to taking semester-long breaks to work and save money for tuition the following semester. Though Silva has lived in Wisconsin her entire life, she doesn’t qualify for in-state tuition. Instead of paying $9,500 as a Wisconsin a resident, she pays more than twice that: close to $20,000.
For besides being a senior student, a communication major, and a Parker High graduate, Silva carries another label. It isn’t on her transcripts, but it categorizes her all the same:
In 2015 nearly 65,000 undocumented students graduated from high school in the United States, according to Educators for Fair Consideration, an advocacy group for undocumented immigrants. Most arrived in the United States as children. They consider the United States their home and although they technically are not, they think of themselves citizens. Having grown up here, the U.S. is the only homeland they have ever known.
Silva stands among them.
Because of her status, when she began applying to colleges, Silva said she felt more uncertain than anything else. Once she was enrolled, she began to feel scared and confused.
To begin with, she had to secure her status with DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program created in 2012 under President Barack Obama. Under DACA , which was established without legislation passing Congress, the Department of Homeland Security created a procedure enabling undocumented immigrants who met certain requirements to apply for permission to stay in the country legally for two years. People who are granted DACA status must renew their applications every two years. The approval process is long, but Silva has been filing for renewal every one and a half years.
Like many undocumented students, Silva said, she didn’t know the proper way to go about filling out various forms, such as FAFSA – the Federal Application For Student Aid, required for all federal college financial aid programs and many private ones as well. She didn’t know if she even could. She didn’t know about scholarships and other forms of financial aid available to her. Instead, she relied on word of mouth and the connections she made with other students like her.
In a world she’d been taught would accept her, Silva felt stigmatized.
More recently , however, the stigma undocumented students often encounter has begun to diminish. Universities and colleges across the nation have started working with undocumented students to help them find their place on campus. UW-Milwaukee considers itself one of them.
Three years ago, to accommodate the needs of undocumented students or students with undocumented parents, UWM administrators formed the the university’s Undocumented Student Task Force. UWM is the only institution in state with a program like this, Silva said.
Alberto Maldonado, the current interim director of the university’s Roberto Hernandez Center (RHC), was working in the UWM admissions office at the time. He teamed up with Dr. Susana Muñoz, whose research focuses on undocumented students. The two, Maldonado said, appeared to be the only faculty members able to answer undocumented students’ questions. He knew that needed to change. The university, he said, had to “bring students out of the shadows.”
The two reached out to North Eastern Illinois University in Chicago, a campus known for its work for undocumented students. They needed to know what they could and could not do, they needed to learn the proper acronyms, and most importantly, they needed to become familiar with the laws pertaining to undocumented students.
Part of their training included how to assist students when filing for financial aid and how the new DACA might help.
UWM’s task force next step included creating an initiative within the group known as DREAMERS – the nickname that has come to be applied to high school- and college-age people like Silva who have grown up in the U.S. after being brought here as children outside the legal immigration process. The name refers to the DREAM Act, for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, a federal bill first introduced in 2001 aimed at providing legal residency in the U.S. for certain undocumented residents. Although it had bipartisan support for much of its history, the DREAM failed to pass despite several attempts.
After training “boot camp” at North Eastern Illinois University, Maldonado and Muñoz returned to UWM to train other colleagues, then created a resource list of names and numbers across campus where undocumented students could turn for help.
They put stickers in offices around campus to guide undocumented students to safe spaces: a silhouette of a hand with a butterfly floating above it, an orange to yellow gradient triangle in the background, and below the imagery, the word “Dreamers.”
By the end of last year, they task force had trained the 75 people in the UWM’s Student Affairs unit as well as the faculty and staff of the School of Education.
The task force tracks which UWM schools and colleges have the most undocumented students in order to offer proper training, Maldonado said.
Silva said one of the most common misconceptions about undocumented students is that they are all Latinx. Undocumented students come from all over, including Korea and countries in Africa. Any international student who overstays their student visa can be considered undocumented.
This is one reason the Inclusive Excellence Center (IEC) on campus is the official center for the Undocumented Student Task Force rather than the Hernandez Center. The other reason is because segregated fees fund the IEC, while state dollars fund the RHC.
Warren Scherer, director of the IEC for four years, is one of the driving forces behind the task force, along with Maldonado and Muñoz, whom he calls his mentor. At a presentation on undocumented students he attended three years ago in Berkley, Calif., the speaker remarked that these students are often overlooked and under considered. The statement, said Scherer, struck a chord.
He recalled working with an undocumented student before and his own sense of helplessness when he realized he didn’t know what he could do. The Berkeley presentation left Scherer wondering what UWM could be doing.
“People are proud they are here,” Scherer said of undocumented students on the campus. Now, they needed a way to show it.
Since Milwaukee has the largest number of undocumented persons in the state, Scherer knew that UWM most likely had the largest number of undocumented students.
But who were they? To formulate a plan, he and his colleagues decided they needed to try create an undocumented student profile. To start, they looked at what they knew for sure.
Because undocumented students are all genders, all nationalities, and pay out-of-state tuition, the group had to begin with generic information applicable to a wide range of students, Scherer said. To get beyond that and create a working profile, they listened to the students, relying on word of mouth.
Still, a student’s status can change at any time, making it nearly impossible to create an accurate profile. Although many undocumented students have DACA, they are not required to disclose their status to the University.
As the team struggled to build a complete profile, Scherer looked for the issues related to undocumented students – issues, he said, that “we can do something about.”
One of those issues was last November’s election results.
When the news of Donald Trump’s election as president – on a platform that called for massive deportation of undocumented immigrants among other things – the Hernandez Center held an open forum for students to come and express themselves.
“They have the right to be here,” said Gabriela Dorantes, an academic advisor in the center. “They deserve an education just like everyone else.”
DREAMERS, meanwhile, released a document alerting DACA students and those in the midst of applying for DACA the proper steps to take.
Actions like those make a difference, Silva believes – especially when for many their first thought was how would they protect themselves.
Although news of Trump’s unexpected victory was devastating, it’s only pushed the task force to work harder.
The weekend after the election, Silva, who also works as a student assistant to the task force and IEC, went to a conference at the Mexican Consulate.
The group brainstormed ideas to help calm and comfort students.
“Nothing is certain,” Silva said. All that DREAMERS and other advocates for the undocumented can do for now is be ready, keep doing what they’re doing, and continue to offer help. This includes making sure students know their rights and how to prepare for the worst.
Currently the task force is working to get at least 50 percent of the campus groups trained. They’re looking at policies and offering suggestions and amendments to certain procedures.
Scherer believes the work of the task force benefits documented students, too, especially when it comes to policies.
In the process, the task force is also becoming more outspoken. “We’re taking the lead from students and being unafraid in helping them,” Scherer said.
Although they’ve relied on word of mouth in the past, the task force is turning to social media and the internet. Task force members hope to create a website with “more robust resources” that students can use, according to Maldonado. Such a website, they hope, might could offer information for students and parents – a resource guide with information about laws, acronyms, and processes. A particular interest is explaining financial aid and how to file the FAFSA if a student is undocumented and how to do so if the student is documented but their parents are not.
Maldonado hopes the website, and the work of the task force generally, goes beyond campus and into the community. They group already has a track record, Scherer said: “UWM was a forerunner in creating services and training in the state.”
While DREAMERS makes headway on campus, they organization continues to watch for groups who want to learn more. For Scherer the first step to working with the task force and undocumented students starts with the individual.
“A person must learn and unlearn,” he said.
Meanwhile, the task force continues its work to eradicate stereotypes about undocumented students, a process they went through. Members hope they can eliminate the stigma of being undocumented and build support on campus and in the community. That’s already happening, Scherer said. “We are bringing down the barriers that block their success.”
UWM has long sought to be known as a campus where individuals feel welcomed and safe, no matter their ethnicity, sexual orientation or background. The task force, its members say, now seek to expand that mindset to fit all students, documented or not.