Special status students navigate fear, isolation with limited resources


Editor’s Notes: The Flat Hat has decided to honor the requests of several sources and keep their identities anonymous out of protection of their identities. The umbrella term “special immigration status” is used to describe those without permanent protected status, including undocumented, DACA, TPS, DED and refugee students.

Nov. 15, 2023, representatives from the College of William and Mary Student Assembly and William and Mary Fighting for Immigrant Rights and Equity met to discuss improving information for special immigration status students on the College’s website. While not the first student-led initiative to increase resources for students without permanent status, the Online Resource Committee’s work over the past six months is a recent effort to highlight this underrepresented community on campus. 

Due to the private nature of their identities, there is no official data on the number of special status students at the College. However, the College is home to a notable population of students with a wide range of immigration statuses including undocumented, Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Although these students face unique challenges in applying to the College, receiving financial aid and navigating their precarious position, resources for them are decentralized and under-promoted.

A primary concern for undocumented students is the need to hide their identities for their own safety. Many struggle with the isolation of being part of an invisible community. WMFIRE Co-Director and DACA recipient Katherine Fernandez ’24 explained how she wishes she knew more DACA students to connect with.

“It’s very much an invisible identity. Anybody on campus could have no status and you not know because they’re doing the same things you are or are limited in ways that you don’t know,” Fernandez said.

An undocumented student at the College elaborated on how his unprotected status makes it harder to be an advocate. 

“What feels isolating is just the pressure of like, how much am I allowed to talk about this and how much I have to keep this for myself. And just debating if I should just shut up or if I should just keep kind of advocating. And at the same time, [there’s] just a challenge that comes with advocating for the community and for myself being under the status,” he said.

Others have pointed out how diverse programming is also more accessible for different student groups.

“Because of the office that I’ve worked in here on campus, I was able to get a really unfiltered view of the administrative priorities of the college,” a formerly-undocumented student who now holds DACA said. “I obviously don’t know everybody. I haven’t spoken to everybody in depth, but just from the glances I got from working in that office for two and a half, three years, I would say that the types of programming that’s offered and resources that’s offered is geared towards a lot more traditional, diverse identities… It sort of kind of falls flat when it comes to people who are dealing with some form of undocumented status.”

This dearth of community programming is not for lack of need. Many students expressed how fear is inherent in their precarious status. For undocumented students, there is the possibility of deportation, and for TPS or DACA students, their protections may be revoked at any time. Additionally, young people with DACA typically have undocumented family members who could face deportation.

Professor and Chair of Sociology and WMFIRE advisor Jennifer Bickham Mendez explained that the College’s infrastructure is not set up for students with precarious home situations.

“That kind of family instability and threat to one’s security, whether or not you’re going to have your parents there — I think that William and Mary is very much constructed as our students have supportive families at home who support them and are the ones paying the bill. And that is not the case for many student groups, and among those student groups for whom that’s not the case are often students who have precarious immigration statuses,” Bickham Mendez said.

Many students find it difficult to handle the stress of their statuses on top of their regular responsibilities as a student.

“This is a school where everybody’s always doing a lot of things that are outside of the classroom as well. So you’re expected to receive very high grades in the classroom and then also get an internship. And then we love doing research here. I’ve personally done research a lot of times. And doing all of that is exhausting and difficult in itself. But I think having an extra layer of almost existential fear of what your situation might be the next day, really just makes difficult things even more complex,” the DACA student said. 

DACA must be renewed every two years. With each renewal, DACA recipients must pay a fee of around $600 and get new documents that are tied to DACA, such as driver’s licenses. Fernandez described the stress of having to find affordable legal support and submit her renewal so frequently. 

“Just doing school and everything, trying to balance, I waited till the last minute, and what that meant was for like a month or two, I didn’t have a status and was just waiting to hear back from [United States Citizenship and Immigration Service] and figure out if I got renewed or not,” Fernandez said. 

Special status students face additional logistical hurdles when it comes to work, even though many find opportunities on campus. A student who only received permanent residency while in college explained that before, she felt uncomfortable having to explain her status to staff members. 

“I do work on campus and getting the authorization for that was a bit weird because people aren’t familiar with the process. When you go up to them and you’re like, ‘oh, I have a work authorization, but not a social security number,’ they’re like, ‘I don’t know how to input this into your payroll thing or your I-9 or tax forms.’ And you’re like, okay. And I have to kind of walk them through that for them, which is not really my job,” she said.

While the first undocumented student has a job with the College, he is one of many students worried about citizenship requirements for outside opportunities.

“It is something that puts me on the spot sometimes when it comes to like, I have to apply for internships and I have to apply for jobs,” he said. “And sometimes I will worry about what am I going to do after college and just the benefits that other students have when it comes to being a citizen and having a social security number that I don’t.”

The ability to work under DACA was vital for the formerly-undocumented student. He explained that he comes from a low-income family and needs financial support. This student highlighted how many special status students have compounding identities — along with their precarious immigration position, they are often low income or people of color. As a Black immigrant, he feels especially invisible.

“Dealing with being undocumented and being Black at a predominantly white institution is something that’s very difficult for a number of reasons. Some of the main reasons is that undocumented people usually don’t look like me. And so I think there’s one, undocumented people are overlooked at this school. But also, if you are of another race that is not from Hispanic origin, unfortunately you get even less coverage of the issue,” he said.

This student acknowledged how the stereotype of the Latinx undocumented immigrant harms multiple communities — while Black people are rarely acknowledged as immigrants, Latinx people are often assumed to be foreigners. 

Resources for special status students are spread across campus, and the College administration does not offer any programs directly targeted at this group. Many students identified WMFIRE, a student organization dedicated to immigration education and advocacy, as a primary resource. 

Additionally, the College sometimes groups special status students in with first-generation low-income students, though advocates say these communities don’t always have the same needs.

“The Venn diagram is not as close as you think it is,” former SA Undersecretary of International Affairs Eduardo Rodriguez Gonzalez ’24 said. “Like yes, there are things for first-generation low-income students, but there’s not specific resources for special status, which is, I think, a bigger hurdle to jump through sometimes.”

First-Generation Student Engagement Director Joselia Souza described FGSE’s commitment to immigrant students, despite their unique needs. 

“While FGLI (Student Org & STEP Affinity Group) primarily focuses on supporting first-generation and limited-income students, it also serves as a supportive community for special immigration status students. The Office of First-Generation Student Engagement (FGSE) is in the process of building support for first-gen students, including those with special immigration status. While specific initiatives may vary, it’s crucial that all students feel welcome and included in FGSE/FGLI spaces,” Souza wrote in an email to The Flat Hat.

Additionally, due to their expertise with visas, some students seek assistance with the Reves Center for International Studies. However, this office is not set up for special immigration status students.

“I know and they do have resources for international students. But since I grew up here, I didn’t feel as much of a need because I feel that the assistance they have for international students is more for adjusting to life here and navigating US and how to deal with culture shock. But I was raised here for pretty much all of my life, so I didn’t use those resources,” one student said.

The College’s website also lists the “DACA/Undocumented Advisory and Support Council” as a support system made up of professors, administrators, alumni and students. The council was formed in 2021 to aid DACA and undocumented students. However, Bickham Mendez said that the group did not achieve much and effectively dissolved after former Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership Andrew Stelljes Ph.D. ’07 left. 

For more immigration-centered assistance, the College’s Law School Immigration Clinic provides legal aid for the community. Still, the clinic is not dedicated to students, and some are unaware of its existence. Fernandez said that she has gone to the Immigration Clinic before, but she never would have known about it if it weren’t for WMFIRE. 

Another major obstacle to providing resources is understanding the needs of an invisible community. 

“People don’t necessarily want to be identified as holding a precarious immigration status and don’t want to be reached out to as that, as a student with a precarious immigration status. But the other issue is that if a student population is invisible, then it becomes very difficult for the institution to know how to serve their needs,” Bickham Mendez said. 

Still, many students feel that administration could be doing more to support them, especially compared to other colleges. For example, University of California Berkeley has a center dedicated to undocumented students, American University provides free legal support for college students in D.C. and George Mason University has a comprehensive list of legal, career and financial resources online. 

“Every president of every college has a post saying that they stand with DACA students. Katherine Rowe is not an exception. But I know that other schools do more, not only for FGLI students, but for undocumented students and immigrant students in general. They’re more proactive in reaching out to the student and making sure that the programs that are available to them are very clear. And my other choice that I was really considering was like, yeah, we have lawyers that are working with us and they’ll help you every time to renew your things,” Fernandez said.

Challenges for special status students do not start on campus. One of the first obstacles they face, and the issue that the Online Resources Committee is trying to combat, is the process of applying to college. While the Common Application is the same for everyone, regardless of citizenship, there is a level of uncertainty for students with precarious situations.

According to Rodriguez Gonzalez, small details, like the fact that applicants can enter 0000 in place of a social security number, are not explained on the College’s website. The lack of discussion around what applications look like for special status students can often translate to fear.

“A lot of it is they just don’t really know where their identity is going. These forms, they’re just handing them left and right to these institutions and they’re like, oh, okay. And it’s very much over email. So it’s not like there’s a safety dropbox or whatever. And so you’re putting a lot of personal information just in the hands of whoever it may be,” Rodriguez Gonzalez said. 

The College’s admissions office has asserted their commitment to working with all potential or current students who seek guidance.

“We are here to help assist. We’ve got a great team. Again, we try to be as understanding as possible and respectful. So if I can just get the students to reach out, I think we could definitely help them out and help guide them as best as we can so they don’t feel so alone in the application process,” Senior Assistant Dean of Admission for Transfer Students Monica Pinier said.

But many students with precarious statuses don’t feel comfortable reaching out and exposing their identity.

“I’m not really the most comfortable speaking about my situation, which is kind of why it’s sort of a double-edged sword. So I never really want to say that there are no resources or nobody available to help. It’s just sort of the people who would be available to help, more times than not, individuals like me probably wouldn’t go and speak to them in the first place,” the DACA student said. 

Another main source of confusion is over financial aid. Most non-citizens are not eligible for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA. In 2022, Virginia implemented Virginia Alternative State Aid to provide financial aid for students who don’t qualify for federal support due to citizenship status. The newness of this program has meant that administrators are relatively inexperienced with it. One undocumented student at the College felt like the burden fell on him to understand VASA. 

“The year I was graduating high school was right the year that it had been starting to be active, it was the first year. So a lot of people had no clue what that form was. So I was really calling all the different schools and a lot of them were just like, oh, I have no idea how this works or any of that. So sometimes, because I already knew what the application was, I had to even educate certain schools,” he said. 

Non-citizens are also limited in scholarship options. One student explained how difficult it was for her to find financial support when she was applying to college.

“I didn’t know of any resources. I would just do what everyone does — google like, ‘what kind of scholarships are there?’ And then it was like, you have to be a permanent resident, you have to have U.S. citizenship. And I was like, okay, cool, I can’t do those. I think there are very few that I could apply to, but even those they would be very specific,” she said. 

Others have identified some scholarships that benefit special status students. For example, the Dream Project offers funding for undocumented, DACA, TPS and asylum-seeking students. At the College, the Jorge Alberto Urcuyo Scholarship is dedicated to students who are ineligible for FAFSA and the Dare to DREAM Fund covers some of the cost of DACA renewal fees. Other scholarships, such as W&M Scholars, do not require citizenship. Still, some special status students believe that the College is not properly equipped to process their financial aid.

“I think when speaking with the financial aid office, it is always a hassle to explain your situation or immigration status to them,” the formerly-undocumented student said. “Even I would say this year when I was just sorting out financial aid — so I’m a senior, I’ve done this several times over — I still would get different sorts of answers to my questions from different sources.”

While many students appreciate the College’s willingness to accept and work with special status students, they believe that administration could do more to clarify the application process. Rodriguez Gonzalez pointed out that the web page for international students and websites for other universities, such as George Mason University, are clearer than the College’s page for undocumented and DACA students. 

“I googled ‘international students.’ And then like, this great resource of things for international students, for foreign exchange students, like step by step resources for them or like the Reves Center, all these things. And then you google ‘William and Mary DACA’ and then it’s like, you click on a link and it’s this long paragraph of Katharine Rowe saying everyone is welcome, kumbaya, live, laugh, love. But there’s no resources like the international student page. And I was just kind of perturbed,” Rodriguez Gonzalez said. 

Rodriguez Gonzalez and the SA-WMFIRE committee have already started to fix many of the broken links on the website. They have longer-term goals to add more accessible information, such as an FAQ section and a walkthrough for applying to the College and financial aid, along with better translations. 

SA Undersecretary of Asylee and Refugee Affairs Liana Carroll ’26 believes the current web page for undocumented and DACA students is unclear and does not promote resources in a concise way.

“Even when I applied to William and Mary, my mom applied for FAFSA and she had a really difficult time understanding it. And she speaks, her native language is Spanish, but she speaks English perfectly, and it was still very difficult for her. And so I think seeing how that can be a challenge for people who even speak so fluently, I’m like, okay, this has to be an issue for other families,” Carroll said. 

The committee is also trying to gather more data about special status students on campus. In a recent SA omnibus survey, members included questions about whether respondents were first-generation immigrants and if they felt supported by the school. One question asked about bilingual campus tours, which is another resource the committee is pushing for.

“When I came in, I never toured here, but I think if I would have, I would have loved my family to understand what was going on,” Rodriguez Gonzalez said. “So my parents only speak Spanish really, and that’s the case for a lot of students as well. Self-guided tours or any sort of tours are just kind of only offered in English.”

Going forward, many students expressed a desire to see programs specifically serving special immigration status students that could provide private legal, career, logistical and emotional support. Bickham Mendez also mentioned the possibility of trainings for professors and staff members working with immigrant students.

“I think if services were more publicized, like offering private or discreet forms of questions and answers and just available resources, I think that would help,” the DACA student said.

Still, there are administrative barriers to some of the desired improvements. 

“If I was in charge, of course I would have everything translated. And I would love to find a way, like maybe students who would be willing to become tour guides or volunteer during events so that we could have multiple cultures represented. Of course that would be wonderful. But I also see the realistic side sometimes of being a public institution and kind of that process and how it goes down,” Pinier said. 

But according to the first undocumented student, these additional support systems would be vital in helping special status students feel more valued.

“Just making sure that they feel supported, that will prevent a feeling of isolation. Like if you feel like the school has seen you and they do care,” he said.

Many students acknowledge a general environment of acceptance at the College. However, with the current state of resources, those involved in advocacy work don’t feel like they are being appreciated.

“I sometimes feel overwhelmed by how much work needs to be done and how little time I have to do it. And just like the lack of attention from student administrators, as very passive and like, oh that’s fine, that’s not a big deal — casual broken links on the websites here and there. Yeah, that’s kind of sometimes disheartening,” Rodriguez Gonzalez said. 

Fernandez added that with so many clubs and issues at the College, students are often more focused on what directly affects them. She hopes that the community can at least start to recognize the intersections of immigration on campus. 

“There are students that are coming in right now who are undocumented and don’t have a solution and are living in fear,” Fernandez said. “And yeah, more needs to be done. I wish more people knew the unique challenges that these students, that we face.”


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