Undocumented students encounter limited Stanford experience

May 24, 2013, 1:38 a.m.

Fermin Mendoza ’11 had the idea of going to college instilled in him throughout his K-12 education and came to Stanford hoping to find a place where he could study engineering and grow individually. As one of the few undocumented students at Stanford, however, Mendoza’s experiences on the Farm proved to be both rare and more difficult to share with peers.

“I remember freshman year I was in the mindset that I didn’t know where I was going to be even the next day,” Mendoza recalled. “I felt that everything that I had and the life that I was living would completely change in an instant if I was removed from the country, if I was deported.”

While Stanford does not officially publicize its acceptance of undocumented students, University spokesperson Lisa Lapin confirmed that the admissions process considers such students on a case-by-case basis. Though Stanford requires students who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents to maintain the proper visa status for matriculation, Lapin said that this requirement is taken into consideration when reviewing undocumented applicants.

“While the visa requirement is there, have we had some students matriculate without it, yes,” Lapin said.

Karen Cooper, director of financial aid, emphasized that there are no restrictions on using University funds to meet the financial need of accepted students—including those who are undocumented.

“We do provide support to the undocumented students, and we hope that they could have as normal and integrated a student experience as all of our students,” Lapin said.

As Mendoza and other students who were either undocumented while at Stanford or had recently changed their legal status upon arrival on campus recall, however, the undocumented experience strays far from conventional life on the Farm in terms of community and access to opportunities.

Lack of community

Ingrid ’11 was born in Guatemala and brought to East Palo Alto when she was nine years old. Despite attending a high school where her undocumented status did not seem out of place and could be comfortably discussed, starting college prompted her legal status to assume a more prominent role.

“Once I got to Stanford, I became a little more conscious of it because I kind of felt like I was the only one there who was undocumented,” she said.

She only opened up to close friends but even then knew that being undocumented was not something common to campus life.

“I never received any negative comments or people with negative attitudes about the issue,” Ingrid said. “It was more so that people were just surprised and people couldn’t believe that someone who was undocumented had made it all the way to Stanford.”

According to Ingrid, it felt uncomfortable having to explain what her legal status was and what it meant, even when her friends would sometimes forget.

Mendoza—who came to the United States at the age of four and whose family overstayed their tourist visas—only felt comfortable opening up to others about his status until he started realizing the misconceptions peers held.

For instance, he recalled a dormmate once joking that he could get away with killing undocumented immigrants because the government technically didn’t recognize them as people.

“I started realizing there were a lot of misconceptions, and I felt like my voice wasn’t being heard and I wasn’t speaking out about my experiences and my frustrations,” Mendoza said.

Though Mendoza was never mistreated once he opened up about his undocumented status, he still felt that the greater Stanford community could not properly understand his frustration and concerns, creating a sense of alienation that would take a toll on his mental health and academic performance.

Mendoza ultimately found a way of embracing and sharing his identity as an undocumented by integrating himself into the queer community.

“I felt that the queer community on campus had really similar experiences that I did as an undocumented person who was vilified in the media,” Mendoza said. “Coming out is also something I had to do as an undocumented person.”

Leonardo ’15 also related a sense of alienation and lack of community. Having entered the United States in 2005 and subsequently facing extreme familial circumstances, he was a ward of the state undergoing proceedings to obtain legal residency at the time of his application.

By the start of his freshman year, Leonardo’s legal status had changed, but he still felt uncomfortable opening up about his experiences living undocumented in the United States.

“I felt that if I did, I would feel isolated or that people would not understand,” Leonardo said. “You don’t want to feel like you’re a stranger or that you stand out for something that might be detrimental to your social interaction.”

Limited opportunities

Stanford’s undocumented students are also constrained by a relative inability to take advantage of career development opportunities.

Ingrid and Mendoza recently qualified for deferred action status under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants them an Employment Authorization Document valid for two years and eligible for renewal.

Though they can both now find their desired work in technical fields after studying engineering at Stanford, they remain disadvantaged compared to peers able to accumulate work or internship experience during their undergraduate career.

“Because I’ve been undocumented for so many years, I don’t have the kind of experience that employers are looking for,” Ingrid said. “Now I have a work permit, so I’m trying to find a job where an employer is understanding of the experience that I’ve had.”

Ingrid had been accepted to a pre-business program after the recruiters had explained she was eligible. After they requested a social security number, however, she was told it was a misunderstanding, waitlisted and rejected.

“It’s really frustrating that you already know where all these things are offered but you can’t really take advantage of them,” Ingrid said.

Ingrid noted that friends and organizations like El Centro Chicano tried to help her find opportunities but were hindered by a lack of knowledge.

“A lot of people don’t know how to go around things or if there is a fair way that things can be run to make exceptions,” Ingrid said. “It wasn’t because people were ill-intended, it was just because people didn’t know how.”

Fermin, on the other hand, managed to secure a stipend with the sociology department and a fellowship with the Haas Center for Public Service, but only after researching what positions he could access.

When asked about what internships or counseling resources are available for undocumented students—even those with deferred action status—at the Career Development Center (CDC), Lance Choy, former director of the CDC, said that those students are referred to the Bechtel International Center or lawyers with the appropriate background.

“You have Stanford as an institution that tells you, ‘You can do whatever you want—here are the resources,’” Mendoza said. “But when you’re an undocumented person at Stanford, when you’re an undocumented person at any institution, you can’t do all those things.”

Seeking action

Undocumented students and alumni called on administrators to better publicize the admissions process for undocumented students in order to create a larger community.

Fermin, who was informed about applying to Stanford through a college counselor at a prestigious charter school, noted that the lack of official disclosure about Stanford’s acceptance of undocumented students could be detrimental.

“[Undocumented students] may have all the credentials, talent and curiosity and all the things Stanford looks for in its students but they may not have the guidance that I did from my college counselor,” he said. “They may just be afraid to apply—they may not know about this.”

Lapin said that Stanford is open to inquiries about accepting undocumented students, a stance partially necessitated by logistical reasons.

“It would be challenging for us to do that when things are constantly in flux,” Lapin said.

She added that the University’s stance on immigration reform indicates an accepting campus environment.

“President Hennessy has been very outspoken in favor of the DREAM Act and believes very strongly that if we educate people they should be able to live and work here,” Lapin said.

While Mendoza and Ingrid credited their academic enrichment and networking while at Stanford as worthwhile in entering the job market, they called for a more openly welcoming University approach.

“If Stanford has already supported some of us, it only makes sense that they be open about it,” Ingrid said.


Aaron Sekhri contributed to this report.

Ileana Najarro is the Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She previously worked as a News Desk Editor and Staff Writer.

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