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Campus Hosts First National Convening to Support Undocumented Students

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Representatives of over 40 colleges, universities, and organizations from across the United States gathered on Swarthmore’s campus from March 25 to 27 to take part in the Supporting Undocumented Students’ College & Career Equity: Strategies for Success National Convening (SUCCESS). The first of its kind, the weekend event was co-organized by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, TheDream.US, and Immigrants Rising, with Swarthmore College providing organizers and the campus space as the event’s host. 

Each institution and organization that was invited to participate in the convening was given the option to bring three representatives: a senior administrator, a faculty or staff member dedicated to supporting undocumented students on their campus, and a student. The selected universities, colleges, and organizations were welcomed to commemorate their ongoing commitment to undocumented students — demonstrating substantive changes in fostering accessibility and equity in opportunities before, during, and after an undocumented student’s postsecondary education.

Swarthmore’s decision to plan and assemble a broad array of perspectives for the conference began long before 2022. Associate Professor of English Literature Sangina Patnaik shared her thoughts and initial experience of being a part of the event’s planning committee in an interview with The Phoenix. 

“At the beginning of 2015-2016, Swarthmore declared itself a sanctuary campus, which was an incredibly necessary and thoughtful move at a really hard time for our country … As an institution, we didn’t totally know what that would mean in terms of what kinds of support was needed … The president convened a task force to try to sort of figure out what kind of policies would support the designation of the sanctuary campus, and I was one of the people that was on that initial task force, ” Patnaik said.

Patnaik has since become Chair of the college’s Sanctuary Committee. As her responsibilities increased, she strived to advance Swarthmore’s obligation to support undocumented students. 

“The conference came about because Elaine Allard, Jen Marks-Gold … and I started trying to figure out what other institutions were doing to support their undocumented students … and it was incredibly hard to get answers. Not because institutions are unwilling to share, but because of the nature of the issues at hand. Institutions don’t necessarily publicize the programs and the works they do,” Patnaik said. 

Associate Professor of Educational Studies Elaine Allard reflected upon one of the struggles and concerns related to planning the convening.

“One big challenge was the uncertainty around COVID and whether we could even have the convening in person, or if we did, if we were going to have to host the big talks outdoors, etc. That uncertainty caused us a lot of stress, but we really felt like it had to happen in person. Everyone is so Zoomed out and sick of online conferences, and there’s really not a good way to make connections without having the meals together and the coffee hours,” Allard wrote in an email interview with The Phoenix.

Once the planning was underway, Patnaik said she knew institutional support would be critical to the convening’s success. Not only was Swarthmore’s backing vital, but it was a way of establishing the conference’s key values and objectives.

“One of the things that I think is really wonderful about Swarthmore is that its commitment to social justice tries to be inclusive of the concerns of institutions that don’t look like us. So we were very clear that we wanted it to be student-centered and grounded in student experience, but also grounded in the experience of different institutions,” Patnaik shared.

In addition to the preparations completed by the planning committee, Professor Allard emphasized the importance of the broad scope of assistance provided.

“Putting on this convening was a ton of work. We had to coordinate space, registration, hotels, speakers, catering, interns, volunteers, music, videography, AV, ASL interpreting, mobility support, printing, buying office supplies and decorations — so many things. So I just want to tell you the names of some of the people who made all of that happen from the Swarthmore team: Stacey Hogge; Dulce Ventura; Olivia Vazquez; Mike Bednarz in Media Services; Susan Eager in facilities; Matt Ramus in Swarthmore Catering; and A LOT of other student volunteers and interns and college staff,” Allard wrote. 

Prior to the physical meeting, a survey was designed by TheDream.US, a nonprofit organization with a focus area in furthering college educational opportunities for DREAMers. The survey was distributed to all prospective event attendees. Its goal is described as to determine what resources were available to undocumented students on college campuses with an intent of presenting its findings at the opening session. The survey’s results would then structure and stimulate the remaining convening discussions.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Allison Miller and her Math for Social Justice (MATH 020) class facilitated creating graphic and visual displays of the survey’s data for the conference.

“I think one of the wonderful things about the conference is the amount of expertise it brought together … One of the things that data can be really powerful for is helping to say: here’s a bigger picture as well. This challenge that you may see is shared across other institutions so you can communicate with them about how to meet [goals],” Miller explained in an interview with The Phoenix.

The convening’s kickoff presentation was naturally designed to be collaborative and to promote discussion and sharing of experiences without delay.

“One of the things I really liked was that the first talk was a very brief welcome [and] presentation of the data and then … they sort of opened it up for everyone [to] group according to their institution and then choose one policy or practice that they think their institution does really well that they wanted to share,” Miller reflected.

Each day of programming at the conference featured engaged discussion and partnership among event attendees. Both Friday and Saturday included larger keynote presentations from distinguished speakers as well as panel discussions that were tailored to bolster inclusivity. Friday’s keynote presentation, titled “Dream and DACA State of Play: Administrative & Legislative Paths Ahead” was emceed by Mariam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the President’s Alliance. She introduced Louis Caldera, co-chair of the President’s Alliance, who gave an introduction and segway into a small panel discussion with Eva A. Millona, assistant secretary for partnership and engagement at the Department of Homeland Security, and Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. The panel’s discussion was moderated by Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy, development and communications at TheDream.US.

Feldblum expressed her own connection to the subject of the convening.

“I am personally and professionally deeply invested in supporting immigrant students. I am a second generation immigrant myself — my father was a refugee, born in Lithuania, and came to the U.S. after WWII. He was a Holocaust survivor. I am an immigration scholar and was VP for Student Affairs, Dean of Students, and a Professor of Politics when I was at Pomona College prior to co-founding the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and serving as its executive director,” Feldblum said in an email interview with The Phoenix.

At the first keynote event, President Val Smith presented a warm welcome to event participants virtually, citing an unexpected commitment prohibiting her from attending in-person. Dean of Students Tomoko Sakomura spoke in-person about the convening’s significance to Swarthmore’s own mission in cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“I am cognizant that such visible outcomes are fruits of countless dialogues and discussions between students, faculty, and staff, recognizing the multi-year efforts that have been dedicated to the support of undocumented students at our campus. Being here today, at this first of its kind national convening, I cannot help but to be overwhelmed and excited by the realization that each of you are bringing your collective experience, knowledge, and dialogues from your campuses,” Sakomura said during her introduction at Friday’s keynote.  

The convening’s events were divided in structure and formality, offering plentiful opportunities for attendees to socialize and network. Large group gatherings were held in Sci 101 and 199, and smaller meetings were run in classrooms in other campus buildings.

Receptions, breakfast, working lunch, and dinner were all provided on campus, with twice daily shuttles scheduled to and from nearby accommodations at the Inn at Swarthmore and Fairfield Inn and Suites in Broomall, PA. 

Jennifer Crewalk, associate director for undocumented student services at Georgetown University, spoke about what she valued most about attending the event.

“Georgetown is a private, four-year university, but there’s many community colleges here, public institutions, so it’s really interesting to see what people are doing across the board. We could share. In some ways, we’re doing things that are more advanced than others, and in other ways, we could improve some of our practices,” Crewalk said in an interview with The Phoenix.

Crewalk also moderated a panel on Saturday afternoon titled “Thriving in the Academy: Institutional Structures of Support.” She began her post-lunch session with a fresh approach: an interactive yoga and breathing exercise for the audience.

The convening also featured students at the heart of each panel discussion, roundtable, and informal networking session. As part of an initiative of Immigrants Rising, the California Campus Catalyst Fund was established as a grantmaking system that aimed to enhance undocumented students’ and their families’ access to California’s three public higher education systems. Miriam Vazquez-Gonzalez, Catalyst Project coordinator of Hartnell College, voiced her sense of responsibility to her own students.

“We were one of the first cohorts selected to be a catalyst campus and during that, we really did grow a lot … our practices did expand, and the reason why we’re here is because we do have best practices that we have implemented in our college that we want to take to the state level and then share,” Vazquez-Gonzalez explained.

Vazquez-Gonzalez believes that her presence at the convening is a way of representing her own students. 

“Being here for me is just a way to demonstrate to our students that we truly do care,” Vazquez-Gonzalez expressed.

As for the convening’s intended structure around student perspectives and input, each invited college or university was encouraged to bring a student to partake in discussions and lend feedback to further the diversity of perspectives at the conference. Georgetown University student Jaida Forbes ’24 reflected upon her experience at the event. 

“I’ve been to conferences about immigrants’ rights and immigration reform, but this is the first conference that I’ve been to that’s specifically talking about undocumented people, so I really enjoyed how narrow this is,” Forbes said in an interview with The Phoenix.

Although many aspects of the convening were productive, Forbes also commented on an aspect she believed could have been improved. 

“I do have to say, I wish there would be a bit more diversity in the mix, coming from a person who is Black, and within a community that is mostly Hispanic, I feel like there should be more representation, but I do like the waves that we’re making in that too,” Forbes said.

As the convening drew to a close, Saturday’s keynote presentation was titled “Living Undocumented.” The discussion sought to emphasize the nuanced experiences and stories of undocumented individuals firsthand. Professor of Sociology Salvador Rangel moderated the conversation, bringing together New York Times best-selling memoirist Qian Julie Wang ’09 and Roberto G. Gonzales, acclaimed sociologist and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Migration Initiative.

The talk began with brief introductions from hosts Sangina Patnaik and Elaine Allard, followed by Qian Julie Wang’s reading of chapter seven from her recent memoir, “Beautiful Country,” via Zoom. The excerpt chronicled her personal experience as an undocumented immigrant child in New York City. The chapter recounted the terrors of battling hunger during half-days at school in third grade.

Professor Allard wrote about her favorite parts of the keynote presentation in an interview with The Phoenix. Although she and other key event organizers could not experience the convening as a true attendee, she appreciated every opportunity to do so.

“Everything I was able to sit down for was great. I really loved Saturday’s keynote … The narratives [the speakers] shared, including Qian Julie’s reading of a chapter from her memoir, were really moving. I must admit I felt pretty good when Qian Julie said this conference being held at Swarthmore was the proudest she’d felt of the College, as an alum … Also, I was really glad that Roberto discussed the need for a shift in our undocumented advocacy — we can’t keep acting like DACA is the main framework to guide our work anymore ([since] fewer than half of undocumented students in higher ed today are DACA eligible, and the number without DACA will continue to grow),” Allard wrote. 

Feldblum also commented on what she hoped attendees took away from the convening. 

“I think (1) building a community of practice — to identify our priorities moving forward — both national priorities regarding policy (the threats to DACA and uncertainity around Dream legislation) and campus priorities (including support for post-graduate career/grad school pathways, incorporation of diversity of undocumented students, support for staff, development of non-employment paid opportunities, etc.), (2) recognizing that we need to work together across public and private institutions and with organizations because we can learn from each and work more effectively together,” she said in an email to The Phoenix.

Following breakfast on Sunday morning, brief sessions were focused around next steps. In this final moment as a collective, all of the event’s participants, ranging from all geographical locations and backgrounds, collaborated in an effort to look forward into what SUCCESS may hold in the future. The purpose of summarizing what could be accomplished at the institutional, state, and federal levels in accelerating success for undocumented students and individuals nationwide was emphasized. In the end, Crewalk reflected upon her experience of working with undocumented students.

“I’ve been in this work since 2010, and back then it was very ‘escondido’ [hidden], like nobody talked about it, it was very isolating, most people did this on top of another job, so it’s so wonderful just to see how far we’ve come.”

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