Twenty-year-old Fernanda Hernandez feels welcome and at home at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.
“The faculty members in the Mexican-American Studies program are helping me to find scholarship,” Hernandez told Our Sunday Visitor. “They also welcomed me into the Mexican-American Student Organization on campus.” Hernandez was 3 years old when her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico.
Hernandez, the first member of her family to attend college, is one of many immigrant students who attend Catholic universities in the United States. The voices of immigrants on Catholic campuses enrich those communities with their unique perspectives and life experiences.
‘An essential voice’
“We consider them to be an essential voice in our community. They bring a wealth of knowledge, experience and wisdom that is very important for our students, faculty and staff to learn from,” said Maria Silva, the director of Neighborhood and Community Engaged Partnerships at the University of San Diego’s Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action.
Silva told OSV that the University of San Diego offers resources and programming for the international students who arrive on campus with student visas as well as people who immigrated to the United States, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
The immigrant students on Catholic university and college campuses include those who are documented and undocumented. The universities support them all as best as they can, providing the students with support networks, integrating them into the communities and helping them to know what resources are available to them.
“Through the pastoral accompaniment that we do, we often hear about the struggles in their lives,” said Dr. Arturo Chavez, president and CEO of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas.
“Our faculty are very unique in that they get involved with the students in terms of their needs,” Chavez said. “It’s not unusual that we help students who need clothing or who need extra help like food assistance and connecting them to those services.”
Chavez said the Mexican American Catholic College has many immigrant students of Mexican and Latin American origin, but also from Vietnam, Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere. Many of the students are seminarians, deacon candidates, religious sisters and lay people who are studying for ministry. “We highly value the perspectives that these students bring because they really represent the global Church,” Chavez said.
Claire Acosta-Matos, the director of civic engagement at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said immigrant students who attend college have sacrificed much for their education. She said many of them work two or three jobs to put themselves through school while helping to support their families.
“That’s a very real reality for many of our students,” said Acosta-Matos, who works primarily with undocumented immigrant students, some of whom qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that shields from deportation some people who were brought to the United States illegally as minors.
Given the uncertainty around DACA — President Donald Trump announced last September that his administration would be ending the program and giving Congress a chance to “fix” the situation through legislation — the “Dreamers” on Catholic university and college campuses have been coping as best they can while continuing their studies.
“Right now, I’m just going to school and hoping for the best,” said Hernandez, who has a DACA status. Hernandez said she transferred to Our Lady of the Lake University because of its support system for students like her. At her prior college, Hernandez said her grades began to slip because she was having difficulty focusing on academics.
“It’s nerve-wracking, going to school when in the back of your mind you have this worry,” she said. “It’s helpful knowing that there are all these resources and people in the community who show their support.”
Lisa L. Kirkpatrick, vice president of student affairs at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, told OSV that immigrant students learn more effectively when they have a sense of belonging on campus and are able to make positive contributions to the broader community.
“We try to build communities of learners that understand that part of that learning process in the classroom and outside the classroom is about being in right relationship with one another, engaging one another in robust and sometimes courageous and challenging conversations with one another,” Kirkpatrick said.
The voices of immigrant students, Kirkpatrick added, is “part of who we are as a community.”
“We all learn so much from our students, including our immigrant students,” Kirkpatrick said. “They contribute everyday to the conversation, to the discussion and the learning that goes on in our campus.”
Immigrant students at Catholic universities and colleges are often leaders in student-run organizations and involved in the broader community. Hernandez said she was president of the Mexican-American student organization at her previous college, and she is involved in a similar group at Our Lady of the Lake University.
“They add culture, great conversation, and they are a great intellectual addition,” said Lindsey McPherson, assistant vice president for student success at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.
McPherson told OSV that the University of St. Thomas is a Hispanic-serving institution, meaning it participates in a federal program designed to assist universities that attempt to assist first-generation and majority low-income Hispanic students. She added that the university has first-generation student groups on campus as well as various student-run organizations organized by personal interests.
“We do our best to treat our students as individuals,” McPherson said. “Many of our Hispanic first-generation students want to identify as basketball players, or part of the business society on campus, or part of the pingpong club, for example. They find their place on campus in many different ways.”
Having diversity in the student body, McPherson added, enriches the conversations on campus.
“I see students of different backgrounds all the time hanging out together,” McPherson said. “It’s so fun to watch because these are people who you might think would never be friends in ‘normal life,’ but they are hanging out together.”
That sort of solidarity is in contrast to what Catholic university officials described as a current polarized political climate that makes meaningful, substantive discussions about immigration and the issues intersecting with it extremely difficult.
“Unfortunately, we are in a stage in our culture where we really are not understanding how to dialogue well or the importance of dialogue,” said Acosta-Matos of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Acosta-Matos added that she “can’t even imagine” what her university would be like without its Dreamers and the skill sets, motivation, talents and perspectives that they bring to the community.
“It’s a humbling gift to be able to walk with them on their journey,” she said.
With the help of the faculty and staff at Our Lady of the Lake University, Hernandez said she is hopeful that she will obtain the necessary scholarships to help her pay for the tuition that she had to pay out-of-pocket last semester.
Befitting her DACA status, Hernandez has dreams. She hopes one day to become a professor in the Mexican-American Studies field and to mentor immigrant students, including those who are undocumented, to pursue their education.
“We need to show our families that it was worth it when they came over here, and came to a completely different place where they didn’t know anyone and didn’t have any family,” Hernandez said. “I want to inspire others.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
Read all College Special Section 2018 articles here.