Navigating the college admissions process can be a challenge for any student, but in Indiana, undocumented students can face extra hurdles in pursuing higher learning. That’s because Indiana is one of just six states that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities.
Helping Indiana teachers identify pathways to college — and through college — for their undocumented students was a focus of a panel discussion Wednesday, put on by WFYI Public Media and the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. Educators in the state say that in recent years, they have noticed an increase in undocumented students in their classroom, and many of these students assume that higher education is out of reach for them.
Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. But access to public colleges in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. While it’s possible for undocumented students to be accepted at and to enroll in colleges, entrance exams and figuring out how to cover the tuition, can be tricky, especially because undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid. They also worry that the application process puts themselves and their families at greater risk of deportation.
Wednesday’s event was held at the WFYI offices in Indianapolis and brought out dozens of educators, students, and community members. The gathering was part of an ongoing series about the intersection of education and immigration.
The panel featured Cinthia, an undocumented student who graduated from Emmerich Manual High School in 2015. Cinthia did not provide her last name because of her immigration status. She spoke passionately about how instrumental her English-as-a-new-language teacher, Jessika Osborne, was in eventually getting her to college and ensuring she felt safe once there.
“She’s always been in my life,” Cinthia said. “I felt like Osborne would protect me no matter what.”
Cinthia, Osborne, and two other panelists answered questions and participated in a moderated discussion about advice for other educators struggling with how best to help their students who are undocumented pursue higher education.
Read more: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.
Work to build trust.
Karina Garduño, IUPUI’s assistant director of multicultural planning and another panelist, said one of the biggest hurdles for teachers is determining which of their students might be undocumented, and therefore might need extra help with the college admissions process.
Garduño said the first step is establishing a good rapport. When students trust you and feel comfortable, they are more likely to disclose their immigration status and open up about whether or not they need assistance with the college process.
“A lot of these students will not share this information with just anybody,” Garduño said.
Making the time to do this outreach is no easy feat for many educators in the state. Garduño said she’s known guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students. Such ratios aren’t uncommon in Indiana or across the country.
“As much as you are well-intentioned and really want to help, your human capacity is not necessarily always there because you have so many students to serve and they each have so many individual needs,” she said.
Osborne said she, too, has felt overwhelmed juggling her classroom responsibilities with the intense needs of her students, especially amid changing policies around immigration and undocumented populations. Still, she’s seen how consistent effort to build trust with students can pay off.
“There wasn’t a time where I remember Cinthia saying, ‘I’m undocumented,’” Osborne said. Rather, there were just hints over time that Cinthia needed help applying for college and getting paperwork that proved she was in school.
To help students like Cinthia, Osborne said she sometimes gives up her lunch hour and planning time. She also makes herself available after school and before sports practices begin.
Angela Adams, also a panelist and an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney, said she gets a lot of questions about whether teachers need to report students who disclose they are undocumented, or whether helping them is “aiding and abetting” some kind of crime.
“First of all, don’t panic,” Adams said. “You’re not doing anything wrong by not reporting this person or by having this person in your classroom.”
Adams said FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects certain information about students, applies here.
“You can’t disclose to third-parties even if you wanted to — you’d probably be losing your job,” Adams said.
Know your limits.
Adams and Garduño encouraged teachers to be supportive, but not to go beyond their roles as educators. For example, they can reassure their students that they won’t tell anyone about their plight without their permission. But they shouldn’t be giving out legal advice. Rather, they can recommend speaking with an immigration attorney.
“Be careful,” Adams said. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know … you could end up getting someone in a worse situation even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”
And in the meantime, panelists advocated that teachers familiarize themselves with available resources, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, La Plaza, and the Indiana Latino Institute.
In the classroom, Osborne suggested teachers identify when it might be wise to avoid working in large groups on college-related assignments. At Manual, she said, students have been taken in groups to a computer lab to fill out college financial aid forms. But undocumented students might not feel comfortable in that setting — and some just didn’t show up, she said.
Osborne said her department has also held smaller parent nights for information about immigration, the college application process, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Most of all, Cinthia said, she appreciated that Osborne and other teachers never made her feel like her dream to complete her education and become a nurse was out of reach — even if she faced more challenges along the way.
“Don’t make them feel like they’re not going to finish,” Cinthia said. “Just help them and support them through the whole way.”