If there is anything I have learned from my work in Student Affairs, it is that one should not ask think of student issues in terms of “IF this happens…,” but should instead re-frame the concept in terms of “WHEN this happens.” Spend enough time in the field, serve enough students, respond to enough committee invites or requests to weigh in on initiatives, and you will come into contact with the issue. The best thing a dedicated Student Affairs practitioner can do is to broaden their understanding, take on the role of self-educator, and be willing to do some personal research on the fly.
I know that supporting students who are undocumented is an ongoing topic in Higher Education, and I know that I know nothing about it. When I hear that there are thousands of students who are undocumented currently enrolled in colleges and universities, and that these students are facing unique and terrifying barriers to their education, I start to think “what do I do WHEN I meet one of these students?” As a person developing a career as a generalist, I think I become even more likely to encounter the WHEN. That is precisely why I chose to participate in the #sachat on students who are undocumented on December 6, 2012. I wanted to start to understand this issue, and, at minimum, be prepared to provide welcome and information to an undocumented student WHEN I am in contact with one.
Here are some of the ways in which I went about gathering information. Call it tips and tricks for self-education on student issues.
- Language: language is so important when working with student issues. It is important to know the key words, terms, and ways of speaking about an issue to convey information and care. With regards to working with students who are undocumented (I prefer person-first language as I think it demonstrates an ethic of care), I recommend this website from Loyola University of Chicago. Though some of what is there is geographically specific, it helped me to get a grasp on language and terminology on this issue.
- Crowd-Sourcing: colleagues are some of the best resources a person can have. I love to use #sachat to see who is out there with more information than me. Also, I try to identify the people on my campus who might serve as resources. Some of the questions I have been asking:
- What are the barriers that students who are undocumented face in getting into colleges and universities? What are the barriers they face once they get in?
- What is the most important thing that a Student Affairs practitioner should know about serving students who are undocumented?
- Are there best practices available to me?
- Does my campus have a policy regarding students who are undocumented? Is there a person on campus who focuses on this issue in particular?
- What are the legal issues I should understand? Financial? Social?
- How do I create a safe space where students who are undocumented can disclose this to me? Given my campus’ policies and procedures, is this something I can do publicly?
- What, if any, are the potential repercussions of a student disclosing they are undocumented – for the student, the institution, and for me?
- What websites/documents provide useful data?
- Research: Once I have an idea of what I need to look for, and how better to differentiate between good and bad information, I roll into personal research.
- I usually start with journals. I like the Journal of Higher Education, the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, and the Journal of College and Character.
- I also go to websites and periodicals I like and trust – the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, NASPA, ACPA to name a few.
- Finally, I spend some time looking at what the media is saying. Doing this at the end of my search lets me look at how these issues are being portrayed with a critical eye. For example, I saw that a recent article on the DREAM Act in USA Today titled “Colleges look at policies for illegal immigrants.” Knowing what I now know, do I want to read that? Well perhaps to see how the students are portrayed, but not likely as a source for information in line with my values.
As professionals serving students, it is important to think about WHEN these issues will come through our doors. The more informed we are, the more successful we will be in helping to drop barriers, provide services, and demonstrate care in our work. We need to be proactive and take on the duty of self-education so that we are prepared…and WHEN those students come to us and we are not prepared, (because that will happen to!) we need to be willing to jump in with what we know, bring in others who know more, and treat it as an opportunity to learn through immersion.
Clare Cady is the Human Services Resource Center Coordinator at Oregon State University. She holds a MA in Educational Leadership from Washington State University. When Clare is not serving students, she is cycling, playing guitar, or fulfilling her role as staff writer for www.westtoast.com.