Although she’s an American-born citizen, Vanessa Núñez knows all too well the struggles that undocumented students face in college and beyond. The sociology doctoral student previously worked as an academic advisor to high school students living near the Mexico border while earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of California, San Diego. There, she found many undocumented students felt college was unattainable for them — and even if they did earn a degree, what would they do with it?
“An undocumented student’s pathway through college and after is wrought with a lot of hardships,” Núñez said.
Through her research, she seeks to share insights on how this pathway might be made smoother. Under the guidance of UNLV professor and sociology chair Robert Futrell, former sociology faculty in residence Anna Smedley, and sociology professor Cassaundra Rodriguez, Núñez has studied undocumented students’ access to higher education, including the availability of and access to resources such as funding and support services. For her master’s thesis, she participated in a research project that included community members and students from the UNLV student activist organization Undocunetwork, a coalition of undocumented students and their allies.
The study’s findings weren’t particularly groundbreaking: Undocumented students on campus encountered exclusionary experiences and felt they had to build their own networks and find their own resources. These students wanted to turn to trusted faculty and staff members for information, but they too often found these sources to be misinformed and unreliable.
What was groundbreaking was the inclusion of undocumented students in the research process itself.
“When you’re working with marginalized communities, it’s important to involve them in the research process because it gives them a platform to have their voices heard,” Núñez said. “Otherwise, the study risks becoming exploitative and taking agency away from that population.”
By joining the research team, the undocumented students helped the researchers design the study in a way that protected the community while lending additional credibility to the work. The study also gave undocumented students the opportunity to develop their research skills, which can be difficult for undocumented students to access otherwise.
Núñez said the students shed light on concerns like access to mental health care — important for a population that regularly experiences discrimination, harassment, and subsequent anxiety. They also expressed the need for more sensitivity on the part of well-intended organizers when publicizing work with undocumented students—for instance, when an event for these students is posted but includes the meeting date, time, and location, in spite of high anxiety over potential ICE raids.
For all the areas of improvement the study uncovered, it also revealed the tenacity and resilience of undocumented students. Students in Undocunetwork celebrate what they call “UndocuJoy,” which represents a push to change the narrative of hopelessness and helplessness that often surrounds them.
“These folks keep fighting, and they make a way for themselves,” Núñez said.
Where institutional support and information was lacking, undocumented students at UNLV found a way to build their own networks. One example, Undocunetwork, was founded in 2015 as a primary resource for undocumented students at UNLV, providing information that was otherwise difficult to find, whether school-related or otherwise. The organization also assists those trying to navigate the world as undocumented people. Students can tap into the network for soup-to-nuts information on everything from what scholarships they’re eligible for to what to do when a parent has a medical issue but no health insurance.
Undocunetwork’s main focus is addressing the disconnect between faculty and staff and these students. It developed “DREAMzone” workshops to help faculty and staff become more aware and sensitive to the issues and barriers undocumented students experience. Undocunetwork is also well-connected to similar community organizations, such as Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Make the Road Nevada, both of which provide resources and advocacy for undocumented persons.
Núñez is researching UNLV’s efforts in this area next. For her doctoral dissertation, she’ll examine what the institution is doing to build a support network and make resources available for undocumented students as well as how much the university is able to change in spite of outside forces pushing back on it. She’s also looking at faculty and staff to see how they use their positions of power to help move the needle and create change on campus.
So far she has found that UNLV, the most diverse campus in the nation in a state with one of the highest percentages of undocumented immigrants, is stepping up. The university has introduced an “alternative need determination form” for undocumented students, who do not have the social security numbers required to fill out a FAFSA, so they can apply for certain scholarship funds. Faculty and staff involved in change work have also formed a campus task force to assist these students. And UNLV’s Office of Diversity Initiatives recently hired a student resource coordinator, a position born directly out of Undocunetwork’s grassroots advocacy.
“Undocumented students are often talked about in terms of, ‘Woe is them,’ as if they have no agency, but there is change happening from within this community,” Núñez said. “Although they don’t have citizenship, they very much thrive, finding ways to be active participants in their community, produce joy, and create spaces of positivity.”