JOLIET – When Brian Herrera came to Joliet Junior College, he felt alone and different from other students.
Unlike most students at the school, Herrera was an undocumented U.S. resident. He didn’t find out about his legal status until he was 16 because his parents wanted him to be safe and avoid his status affecting him.
When he came to JJC in 2012, he didn’t realize there was support and resources for undocumented students until he came to the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.
Herrera said many undocumented students live in fear.
“They stay in the shadows and in fear of deportation or being exploited because that’s what they grow up in,” he said.
Now Herrera, along with other students and JJC educators, want to make college life easier and more welcoming for undocumented students. Last fall, a new support group was established called Dreamers Advancing in Leadership and Education.
“It takes a lot of courage for students to say they are undocumented,” said Martha Villegas Miranda, JJC Latino outreach and retention specialist. “If we know they are here, we can help them.”
Miranda said the need for DALE was apparent after a focus group was held last spring semester. The goal of the organization is to help students connect with resources, develop their leadership skills and to distribute information about scholarships.
Miranda said providing undocumented students with access to higher education would help many with their financial situation, establish an educational record that shows commitment and help them with their path to citizenship.
“They are some of our best students on our campus. They want to use education as a catalyst to move from their current financial situation to a better one for themselves and their families,” Miranda said.
One of the issues DALE plans to address is how undocumented students struggle with access to scholarships.
Many scholarships require students to apply for financial aid, and those who are undocumented can’t receive federal or state financial aid.
Herrera said it’s rare for an undocumented student to complete his or her studies at JJC in two years because they have to work and help pay not only for expenses at home, but for tuition.
After JJC student Samantha Ante, who is undocumented and immigrated from Mexico, graduated from Lockport Township High School in 2014, she took off what would have been her first fall semester in college to save money for tuition by working two jobs.
She said she gets mad when she sees her friends who not undocumented receive scholarships and have better opportunities for education.
“We want to study, we want to make this country better, we want to contribute to this country,” she said.
Herrera said DALE hopes to support Senate Bill 2196, also known as the Student ACCESS Bill. The proposed state legislation would provide legal authority to four-year universities in Illinois to provide financial aid to undocumented students, according to a website for the bill.
‘Part of your home’
Besides focusing on access to scholarships, DALE also plans to address the JJC Board of Trustees in February about the needs of undocumented students. Herrera said he also wants the support group to collaborate with Latino student group Latino Unidos, which he previously led.
DALE is personal for Herrera because when he graduated high school he thought he had few opportunities available to him. Realizing there are students like him – as well as support and resources – made him the person he is today, he said. Since coming to JJC, he’s been president of Latino Unidos and a JJC student trustee.
“When you got to a campus that supports you and is willing to help you, you feel like it becomes a part of your home,” he said.
Herrera said the issues affecting undocumented students have been more visible since the passing in 2012 of the federal program DACA – or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – as it which provides some undocumented youth relief from deportation.
Undocumented students are coming out of the shadows, Herrera said.
“They know there is a need to not sit there and stay silent. You will make a difference if you take action instead of living in the shadows,” he said.
FIND OUT MORE
To find out more about DALE or join, contact Martha Villegas Miranda at 815-280-2829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.