College students from all backgrounds often require assistance with even the most basic human needs, including food, housing and mental health.
For those who are undocumented and worried about revealing their immigration status while in search of help, Sandy Lopez has a message.
“Typically, the students I work with are first-generation, low-income students who are trying to navigate higher ed and trying to navigate the resources and support available to them while being Huskies,” says Lopez, coordinator for Undocumented Student Support in the NIU Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“What I say to students is, ‘With everything you’ve had to worry about up to this point, give that to us – to me; to my staff – and let us focus on advocating, on programming, on supporting, on meeting the equity gaps that you feel, so that you can truly be a Huskie and enjoy being a college student.’ ”
Established in 2018, Lopez’s office serves undocumented students from 26 different countries, including some in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Yet many of her clientele are indeed Latinx, part of a population of students who enjoy a multitude of valuable assistance on the NIU campus.
NIU’s Latino Resource Center provides programs and services that include the Adela de la Torre Latino Honor Society (ATLHS), De Mujer a Mujer (DMM), Mentoring and Engaging thru Academic Success (METAS), Supporting Opportunities for Latinos (SOL), Vanguardia Afirmativa de [email protected] Unidos (VALU), the Women’s Empowerment Conference, Latin Chill, Latino Heritage Month, Latino Dinner and Latino graduation.
The Center for Latino and Latin American Studies, meanwhile, is an interdisciplinary academic research unit, housing the minor in Latino and Latin American Studies, a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies, research projects, lectures, discussions, workshops and community outreach activities.
“The academic and cultural programming that we host is really important for students,” says Christina Abreu, director of the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies.
“I remember when I was an undergraduate student, going to ‘that one event’ and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that makes me think differently,’ or, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could do that,’ or, ‘I didn’t know I could ask those sorts of questions,’ ” she adds. “And those are the kinds of events that we like to host. We like to bring in speakers who are going to challenge the way students, and sometimes faculty and administrators, think about things.”
Both centers share a building on Garden Road with facilities such as a computer lab, a smart classroom, a library, study areas, a lounge, administrative offices and an atrium suitable for art exhibits.
“Our slogan in the Latino Resource Center is that we’re your home away from home,” Director Luis Santos-Rivas says. “We create a sense of belonging for our students. We create all these programs and these events to make students feel that we are here for them.”
He also is raising the center’s visibility and, consequently, its impact.
“There are some students who commute – who just come to class, go home or go to work – and when I send the Latino graduation invitation, for example, that’s when they learn about us,” Santos-Rivas says.
“We are working very hard to break that gap. What I’ve been doing for the last two to three years is sending a welcoming email to the incoming freshmen and transfer students every year and every semester, and active working on our social media, programming according to the generations.”
Abreu is proud of the minor that is open to all students.
“If you are a Latino student, our minor offers you the opportunity to study the history and culture of Latino communities, often from the perspective of Latino writers and scholars. This is oftentimes a history that is not covered in high school curriculum, and so this is an opportunity for you to gain a deeper understanding of how Latino communities took shape in the United States” Abreu says.
Students who are not Latinx also can benefit from the minor, she adds.
“Depending on what your career ambitions are, this minor will also allow you to demonstrate to an employer that you have a geographic expertise in Latin America,” she says, “and that you also have a cultural competency that allows you to better understand the Latinx communities that you’re going to be working with and serving.”
Beyond that, Abreu says, the center’s Latino Oral History Project allows undergraduates to connect one-on-one with faculty mentors to conduct research.
“They document and make more visible the stories and the experiences of Latinxs in northern Illinois and, oftentimes they interview individuals who have had an impact on their personal lives and in their communities” she says. “The other crucial part about this research experience is that we’ve worked really hard in the last few years to make sure that these research experiences are paid research experiences.”
Some alumni have told her that this “changed their lives,” turning the impact of their explorations into successful careers as lawyers, teachers, museum staff and more.
“It really allowed them to learn more about their communities,” Abreu says, “and has allowed them, in some instances, to interview family members whose stories they kind of knew in snippets but didn’t know to the full extent – some of the trauma associated with being a migrant, and in some instances being undocumented while working in factories or working in health care.”
Families are an integral part of Lopez’s work.
Because of their undocumented status, many fear leaving their students in DeKalb. They wonder whether NIU is a safe, welcoming and inclusive place.
“We’re not just ensuring the families that their students will have support while they’re here but we’re also assuring the families that we’re truly celebrating their diversity and the cultural wealth they bring to our campus,” Lopez says.
“Luckily, here at NIU, I always state that we have a friendly campus for undocumented students because of undocumented students,” she adds, “through the education they do through the ally trainings and through the panels they go on. They give what we call ‘counter-stories’ to challenge the myths and stereotypes about undocumented students, and give their life experiences, to humanize the issue.”
Those conversations have “really helped to shift the way that this university, this community and the town of DeKalb sees our undocumented students,” she says.
DeKalb residents come together every semester to donate books, school supplies, scholarship dollars and even gift cards, Lopez says. Students use those for everything from buying new glasses to paying for DACA renewals.
Meanwhile, the students find intangible forms of support from Lopez, her assistant director and their team of graduate assistants and student-workers.
DREAM Action NIU, for example, is a student-led organization working to raise awareness about the situations undocumented students face in the U.S. and particularly on campus.
Led by Lopez, DREAM Action NIU members believe that higher education is a fundamental human right for all, regardless of citizenship status.
She also thinks about the advocacy she and former students provided that led to state legislation creating the Retention of Illinois Students and Equity (RISE) Act and Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid. It allows undocumented students access to Monetary Award Program grants and, now, Huskie Pledge financial aid.
Even the location of Lopez’s office, in the Campus Life Building, is advantageous.
Worried about a job or internship interview? Career Services is right around the corner. Feeling stressed? Counseling and Consultation Services is on this level as well. Struggling with coursework? Check out the Academic Advising Center next door.
Experiencing food insecurity? The Center for Student Assistance is just downstairs. Commuting to campus and need a place to hang out or study? Commuter and Off-Campus Programs is also on the first floor.
The community of support reminds Lopez that people do not have to relate to understand the struggles of others to practice empathy.
“I knew one student who was just so overwhelmed that she got stuck. She wasn’t responding. She wasn’t doing what she had to do. She wasn’t following up with email,” Lopez says. “I met with her and her mom, and I said, ‘I know you’re frustrated. I know you’re overwhelmed.’ And she said, ‘I just get so scared. I don’t know what I should be doing.’ ”
Lopez had the answer.
“I said, ‘But that’s what I’m here for, right?’ She said, ‘I keep forgetting that I’m not alone,’ ” she says.
“And they’re not alone. They have a community here. They have an office. They have us, and we build those relationships,” she adds. “I think there’s a lot to authentically caring for someone. If we can authentically care for our Huskies, and they know that they have someone they can go to – and hopefully more than one someone, right? – then I think that their ability to persist here is going to increase exponentially.”