What Undocumented Students Taught Me as a College Professor

Dr. Susana Muñoz Education Justice, Stories

The chill of the Northern Colorado air was my cue to wear my sweater blazer with my green T-shirt that read “I support undocumented students” in white bold letters. I looked at my iPhone and it read, “1:45pm” over the picture of my daughters grinning ear to ear. I quickened my stride as I left my campus office, I hurried over to the parking lot, and decided on a short cut by following a worn pathway in the grass. Looking through my tan aviator sunglasses, students were also in a rush to make their way to their next class and I noticed the “looks!” Some students looked profusely confused at my t-shirt, I got a “nice shirt” comment from a woman who looked like she might be an adult learner or faculty member, but mostly; my t-shirt was met with an element of awkwardness mixed with blank stares of utter confusion. I made it to my car and as I opened my trunk to throw my heavy mandarin colored backpack in the back, two women walking past me whispered to each other, “What! THEY go here?” I took a deep breathe of the crisp fall air, shook my head, and placed my body into the driver’s seat. “Nope, I can’t address that today.” Today, arriving on time to the Boulder, Colorado pro-immigration rally took priority over addressing a micro aggression with two strangers in a parking lot.

These looks of confusion are not uncommon. Even in my interactions with faculty and staff, the topic of my research area is often met with friendly nods and awkwardness. I’m often asked why I study undocumented students and what keeps me motivated to continue. The work that I do around the college experiences of undocumented students stems from my own emotions and struggles with my immigrant identity. I identify as a Chicana immigrant. Born in Mexico but developed a critical consciousness about the world around me in the United States. I had the privilege of accessing the cultural capital of my white stepfather who navigated the immigration system and solidified my family’s citizenship within four years of our arrival. Throughout my lifetime and today, I deal with answering the question “where are you from,” which evokes a dose of anxiety caused by the externally imposed stigma of being “Othered”. My anxiety led to shame; shame was an emotion in which I had very little understanding about. However, shame was the culprit for much of my low self-esteem in my adolescent years. I know that the immigrant stigma continues to perpetuate negative images for our society, so the work that I do with undocumented students is about taking action and creating change so campus environments are mindful and intentional about serving undocumented students.

I stay motivated in this journey because of the student activists and allies around me. To witness the lengths in which student activists endure for liberation and to gain dignity in a climate of indignation has changed me. I cannot hear the stories of suffering caused by family deportation and separation without taking action. When we hear of the pain, trauma, and struggles of undocumented youth we have two choices; we can do nothing or we can act. We must remember that our silence will continue to fuel these indignations, while our actions can create change. As university professionals, we have to ACT and think deeply about how our actions (inactions) and policies perhaps perpetuate shame and the invisibility of our undocumented students. We need administrators to RISE UP. Stopping the indignation of immigrants in the United States should not fall solely on the shoulders of undocumented activists, it should be the responsibility of ALL individuals.

As campus administrators, students, and faculty allies who self proclaim themselves as “Unafraid Allies” through the National Educators Coming Out Day, I ask these individuals to think critically about what risks they are able and willing to take in order make the voices of undocumented college students central to their practice. I urge college campus leaders to venture outside the walls of higher education and be present in allyship with community entities. A true “Unafraid Ally” supports not only undocumented students but also their families and communities.

While being an “Unafraid Ally” requires more than wearing a t-shirt, I hope that one day I can wear my “I support undocumented students” t-shirt without the stares of utter confusion from people around me. I also hope that higher education and higher education professional associations (ASHE, AERA, NASPA, and ACPA) take a more vocal stance to proactively support the educational and human rights of undocumented immigrants.. Higher education institutions have an opportunity to shape societal viewpoints and opinions on this deep-rooted civil rights issue. The question is whether they will lead with courage and be unafraid and unashamed, like so many undocumented students changing our campuses and communities on a daily basis. Join me and these students annually on November 12 and pledge your public support with and for undocumented students during National Educators Coming Out Day.

About the Author

Dr. Susana Muñoz

Dr. Susana Muñoz is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the School of Education at Colorado State University (CSU). Her scholarly interests center on the experiences of under served populations in higher education. Specifically, she focuses her research on issues of access, equity, and college persistence for undocumented Latina/o students, while employing perspectives such as Latino critical race theory, Chicana feminist epistemology, and college persistence theory to identify and deconstruct issues of power and inequities as experienced by these populations. She utilizes multiple research methods as mechanisms to examine these matters with the ultimate goal of informing immigration policy and higher education practices. Her first book “Identity, Social Activism, and the Pursuit of Higher Education: The Journey Stories of Undocumented and Unafraid Community Activists” (Peter Lang Publishing) highlights the lives of 13 activist who grapple with their legality as a salient identity.