Cultivating potential: How UC Santa Cruz is helping undocumented students thrive

Thanks to more than a half-dozen programs, undocumented students on campus have been able to get support, assistance, and encouragement—and the campus benefits from nurturing their passion and talent

Campus programs—funded by the University of California and some private donations—provide counseling, internships, legal help, support groups, an extended orientation program, and even a lending library of 3,000 textbooks for undocumented students to borrow. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

In her third year at UC Santa Cruz, Amy is doing research on the universe’s most violent events. She is about to publish a paper on the topic, is headed to Harvard for a summer research program, has a 3.7 GPA, and plans to go to graduate school.

But a decision her parents made to bring Amy to the U.S. at the age of 4 leaves her with worries and obstacles many other students don’t face.

Amy (not her real name) is undocumented, which means she is ineligible for some scholarships, may be hampered in her graduate studies because she isn’t allowed to get federal research funds, and, in the current political climate, lives with an undercurrent of anxiety that her family could be deported.

But thanks to more than a half-dozen programs at UC Santa Cruz, Amy and approximately 400 other undocumented students on campus have been able not only to survive, but to thrive.

The programs—funded by the University of California and some private donations—provide counseling, internships, legal help, support groups, an extended orientation program, and even a lending library of 3,000 textbooks for undocumented students to borrow. The campus’s Educational Opportunity Programs office (EOP) carries out these programs, which were developed by and, now, implemented by, students and counselors.

“Why is it critical to have these services?” says Pablo Reguerín (Oakes ’94, Latin American and Latino studies), who is assistant vice provost for student success at UC Santa Cruz. “Because undocumented students represent an enormous asset in terms of their intellectual, academic, and human capital for the state. Aside from these benefits, this is a matter of our own humanity and social justice.”

Changing policies

The history of undocumented students at UC campuses is a checkered one. Before 1991, undocumented students were allowed to pay in-state tuition at UC institutions provided they could prove they had lived in the state for a year and a day and planned to make California their home. Then, in 1990, an employee at the UCLA Office of the Registrar sued, saying he was forced to quit because he could not follow those rules. The employee won an injunction and soon undocumented students were being charged out-of-state tuition rates, which basically barred them from a UC education.

A 2001 state law, AB 540, changed the rule so that undocumented students could again pay in-state fees. More state laws, passed in 2011, allowed these students to receive some state financial aid. Finally, in 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order dubbed DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which prevented young people who were brought to this country as children from being deported while they were in school.

College seemed within reach for more undocumented students until the election of Donald Trump, who had called for a hard line on immigration policy. That prompted UC President Janet Napolitano, in November 2016, to not only reiterate the UC system’s support of undocumented students and but also allocate money for undocumented student programs. UC Santa Cruz will receive $275,000 in each of the next three years.

Harvesting talent

Santa Cruz programs funded by this money, along with private donations, include free legal services for students and their families, peer counseling, support groups, a textbook lending library that hands out about 650 textbooks each quarter, and an intense five-day orientation program for undocumented students. Besides learning how to navigate the wooded campus and schedule classes, the orientation gives undocumented students information on renewing their DACA status, negotiating with landlords who may be averse to renting to undocumented students, budgeting, getting emotional support, and finding financial aid, among other subjects.

Most importantly, the UC Santa Cruz Career Center also offers an internship program available to undocumented students through the Professional Career Development Program (PCDP). These internships are especially important for undocumented students, who may come from low-income families and find themselves facing a funding gap of $7,000 to $9,000 a year, according to Reguerín.

For five undocumented members of UC Santa Cruz’s STEM Diversity Program this year, the PCDP program means an opportunity to not only do hands-on research in fields like neurodegenerative diseases and gene expression but also receive a stipend for their work, according to Yulianna Ortega (Merrill ’05, biology and Latin American and Latino studies), director of the STEM Diversity Program. Two other undocumented STEM students are working on administrative projects.

In addition, a program called Lamat, funded by philanthropist Julie Packard (Crown '74, biology; M.A. '78) allows community college students, including those who are undocumented, to be part of a summer research session in astrophysics.

“I see these efforts as an opportunity, especially in the sciences, to find and harvest the remarkable talent we have in these communities,” says UC Santa Cruz Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz.

Have potential, need opportunity

While UC Santa Cruz sometimes lost capable students from wealthier schools to institutions like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, Ramirez-Ruiz says, he and others have been able to attract a pool of equally talented students, many undocumented, who are ready to bring their differing viewpoints in order to find solutions to complex astrophysical problems that are often more innovative and creative.

The students attacked problems with vigor and were quick to think on their feet, Ramirez-Ruiz says, but their status in society often made them feel unwelcome.

“They knew, in order to stand out, they had to do better than everyone else because of the excessive resistance they are constantly confronting,” Ramirez-Ruiz says.

Undocumented students from UC Santa Cruz have not only gone on to graduate school, but also a number are working in fields like education, biotechnology, public health, and in the nonprofit sector.

Says Ortega: “These students have so much potential. They just need the opportunity.”

“The fact is, the talent is already here, already contributing positively to society, and some of these students are just brilliant,” Ramirez-Ruiz says. “There is a clear message from society to them that they are second class and that they don’t belong here. But despite this unyielding defiance, the level of determination shown by these students is basically unmatched. We need to give them an opportunity because in terms of market value, they are an investment that will give you the highest return.”

UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal agrees.

“UC Santa Cruz is committed to supporting these hard-working, talented students who continue to make valuable contributions to the campus and to their fields of study,” Blumenthal says.