Q&A with USP Director, Meng So

Undocumented Student Program Director Meng So answers some frequently asked questions about how to implement an undocumented student program.

The question isn’t why we should support these students — supporting undocumented students is supporting students. Higher education is an engine of public good. From a talent standpoint, we’re losing a generation of talented students who could contribute to uplifting aspects of our society.

The Immigrant Rights conversation is similar to conversations about Civil Rights in higher ed that have happened throughout history. Women and people of color used to be excluded. This is not a question of politics, but a question of opportunity.

Three perspectives. For students, faculty and staff, and university decision makers.

For students, make your voices heard. Trust and believe in your experiences. Allow yourselves the opportunity to amplify your voices.

For faculty and staff, we need to understand that equity is every educator’s responsibility. You need to be in a better position to support the students you’re serving.

For decision makers, it’s a question of good conscience, smart economics and professional values to propel higher education and to think holistically about all of our students. It’s your job to exemplify a commitment to the public good and to strategically advocate for change that’s more than just politics. This reflects the character of where our country and institutions aspire to be — in higher ed we strive not just to be a reflection of our society, but to re-imagine where we want to be.

Often what you’ll hear from university decision makers is that they don’t know how many students are undocumented, or what their needs are. However, the more you collect data, the harder it is to argue against the numbers. You need to be thoughtful and intentional about collecting data to verify the number of students enrolled. It’s important to adequately track how students are, or are not, being served. If we’re going to admit students to the university, then how are we going to do everything in our capacity to help them stay engaged and feel supported?

We faced many challenges. Politically, we were out there at the forefront of a topic that’s politically divisive. We had to answer a lot of legal questions. Is a public university engaged in unlawful practices? It’s critical and essential to have good legal counsel. Another question we got was whether there were enough resources? The reality is that there are enough resources. Undocumented students are not displacing other students, but rather adding to the fabric of diversity. For Chancellor Birgeneau, the backlash really reaffirmed his commitment to the decision. He felt it incumbent upon him to represent the most vulnerable population, not the most privileged.

Prioritizing support for undocumented students reaffirms that higher education is at the forefront of shaping and innovating the society we aspire to live in. Berkeley is a highly intellectual community. There’s something to be said about engaging in contentious debates, being willing to engage and find answers that are not easy. This issue is shaping what the next generation of higher education and immigration politics will look like.

Be practitioners of radical listening. Listen to the needs of your students. Where are they coming from? What are they experiencing and why? What can you do in collaboration with them to support their journey through higher ed?

Also, the narrative that there are very few people who will fund this is incorrect. Become allies with the development engine of your institution and give donors an opportunity to say yes. This is where data becomes critical because donors rely on data for decision making.

  1. Understand the issue. Do the research, hear from students, understand how this is playing out in your institution.
  2. Bring together key stakeholders to create a Task Force. Include key players that have an impact or influence on a student’s experience (such as, financial aid, housing, health, food security, admissions, office of registrar, and student support services). Use this body to work collaboratively. Notice how students are impacted, and what you can do to support them. Make decisions about your collective responsibility. Create recommendations together.
  3. Operationalize. Provide resources to deliver on those recommendations.
  4. Continually provide a space within the institution where these issues can be talked about and addressed, as things evolve over time.