Advising the Undocumented
By John Lemuel
It seemed a reasonable request: "I've got an incoming freshman, and I want you to be his adviser." That it came from a top administrator in student life was suspicious, however. And it wasn't really a request. But I gave all of that little thought at the time.
Later that week I met the student in question, a young Latino from an urban high school an hour away. Highly recommended by his guidance counselor, popular among his classmates, active on his student newspaper, he seemed the kind of student any college would want.
Academically he came with a caveat: His grades were strictly average, but his classes were advanced, thanks to a high-school program cultivating minority kids' potential through extra accountability and support. He might have aced general courses, but risked being dragged down by his buddies; instead he struggled through demanding courses, buoyed by motivated classmates.
To succeed at college, he needed to be held accountable by a firm adviser, which is how my name came up. I'm not known for coddling stragglers. When we met I gave him my standard speech about my high expectations: Not taking them seriously wastes his time and money, I said. And any professors who have low expectations of him are just ripping him off, robbing him of the chance to achieve.
"I'm gonna like this guy," he said, with a grin, to the student-life administrator who had accompanied him to our chat. "Just like my high-school teacher. I'm sitting here thinking, yep, he's the adviser for me."
Everyone left the meeting satisfied. I respected that he didn't scare easily. "But there is one thing you should know," the administrator told me afterward. "He's undocumented. And I'd like you to keep that to yourself for the time being."
Taken aback, I had to calculate what difference that made. If he's illegal, did that make me somehow complicit? The question was both ethical and selfish. A quick online search turned up "Advising Undocumented Students" at the College Board's Web site, which provided some clarity and initial guidance.
The only illegal part of this situation is the student being in this country at all. Beyond that, there's no law against him shopping at Target, going to the movies, or attending our college. The admissions decision was already made, as was the choice of his adviser, without consulting me on either case. All I had to do was advise him. Simple enough, right?
As a kid, I heard relatives from California grumble about immigration, long before it became a subject of national debate. Still, it has always felt distant to me. I asked a colleague—a lifelong Californian, transplanted to our Midwestern state—for her take on the issue. She recounted the complexities and expressed her doubts about simple answers. "The fact is, they're here," she said. "And we have to decide how we're going to deal with that."
That summed up my dilemma as an adviser. He's here, now what? My advisees typically expect help with course selection and recommendation letters. I urge my students to explore opportunities and use their summers not just to make money but gain career-boosting experience. Some take heed. Most shrink from the extra effort and avoid me.
Not this student. He was awed by the opportunity to be here. The first in his family to attend college of any sort, he considered our small private college to be a big step above a community college or a large state university. He isn't paying full tuition at our college; no one does. The sticker price is there so we can offer discounts as scholarships. And he has backers among established, legal residents in his home community helping to pay his bills. They believe in him enough to invest in his future, and he seems worthy of their faith.
All of which means more is riding on this than one kid's success or failure. It's a model to be duplicated if we can prove it works. If not, we lose the faith of his community, which we have courted and whose best students we hope to draw. There'll be room for failure later on, but not with the first one through our doors.
Normally I advise students with a light rein. Many new students change their minds about their academic plans in the first semester, and then again and again after that. For most advisees I can say, let's see how that works out, proceeding by trial and error. But with my undocumented advisee, as he considered fields such as education, business, law, medicine, I faced a question: How would that work? I couldn't expect him to answer that unaided. Taking his tuition money without a destination in mind and a plan to get there would be the moral equivalent of a human smuggler demanding payment upfront but leaving his cargo stranded in the desert.
I soon learned more about my student's history. He had entered the country at age 5—the same age as my oldest daughter when my wife and I uprooted her and moved 1,000 miles for me to take a tenure-track job. He probably had as much say about moving as she did. When he was in high school, he was open about his alien status, even traveling to Washington to lobby our Congressional representative on immigration reform.
New to our campus, he wanted to keep a low profile for now. He planned to become a teacher, and maybe move into administration.
His high-school principal had said, "Get your teaching certificate, and I'll give you a job." Could it be that simple? How would it work? I didn't know.
I assumed he couldn't get a teaching license without citizenship. A colleague in our education school agreed, saying my student would need a Social Security number to apply for licensure (after completing his course of study). I called an official in the state education office who said applicants without a Social Security number are assigned a processing number for the teaching license. But that official said the fingerprinting and background check on the applicant would not proceed without a Social Security number. However, another education-department official who serves as a liaison to the state branch of the FBI explained that the background check for a teaching license can be processed with the Social Security field left blank.
So I wasn't the only one whose assumptions were wrong. The snag comes not when you seek a teaching license but at hiring time, when a school district may (or may not) be willing to work something out. I sent my undocumented student to ask his school principal what kind of job—exactly—he could offer four years from now. The response was a vague hint of some position teaching English as a second language (presumably under an H-1B visa, if my student left the country and all went well when he re-entered).
We started him on a teaching degree but, as expected, he changed his mind. Partly that was due to family circumstances. His father got arrested in a traffic stop. Initially the family was hopeful, knowing a judge could rule in favor of naturalization. Being a homeowner with no criminal record and solid employment history could count in his favor. But his father was deported, leaving his mother cleaning houses to get by, with another child on the way.
Meanwhile our student tried to focus on his American-history and freshman-comp courses. We met midsemester with his community sponsors, part of our agreed-upon accountability regimen. Let us take care of your family, his sponsors insisted, your job is to get through college. He looked doubtful but nodded.
His midterm grades were B's and C's with one D. Not bad, he said, noting that at least he wasn't failing. I had to interrupt: That D means nearly drowning, with just your nose above water; you need to be safely above sea (as in C) level. We formed a plan for him to meet with his instructor in that course and recover lost points, and he dutifully followed through.
On larger questions, we decided a business major made more sense as a field with options on either side of the border, should he, like his father, be forced to leave.
Who knows when or what kind of immigration reform will come from Washington. For my advisee another path to citizenship seems more likely. College students have been known to meet, fall in love, and get married. But that's beyond my purview as an academic adviser, and such advice clearly has its limits.
I didn't ask for the extra challenge of advising an undocumented student. But he's here. And I get to figure out how to deal with that. Meanwhile, he's starting to think about majoring in political science.
John Lemuel is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the social sciences at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.