Skip to Main Site Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Footer
Back To Top

'Under-documented' students attend first SUCCESS national conference

Published on April 18, 2022

'Under-documented' students attend first SUCCESS national conference

Conference dedicated to supporting undocumented college students

Students Edgar Escutia ('24) and Frida Nieto-Gonzalez ('24), Opportunity Scholars who attended the event with President Nunez and Chris Ambrosio.
Eastern students Edgar Escutia ’24 (left) and Frida Nieto-Gonzalez '24 (second from right), accompanied by President Elsa Núñez and Director of Opportunity Programs Chris Ambrosio, attended the first SUCCESS conference in support of undocumented students this March at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. 

The first time Edgar Escutia ’24 walked into a college information fair in his home state of Georgia, he was terrified. Because he was legally “under-documented” — a term he prefers to calling himself undocumented — Escutia was “really nervous and scared to disclose my status; (I was) worried what they would tell me and how they would look at me. I felt so powerless not being able to show off my achievements and everything I had done. I left without talking to anyone.” 

Today as one of Eastern Connecticut State University’s active 159 “Opportunity Scholars,” the Mexican-born Escutia believes he has found a welcoming place where he can talk openly and advocate for other undocumented students in Connecticut and throughout the nation.

In its sixth year, the Opportunity Scholars program is privately funded through TheDream.US foundation, which provides scholarships to undocumented students in the United States. Launched by former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham and his wife Amanda Bennett in 2013, TheDream.US foundation provides critical financial support to immigrant students without legal standing in this country. Since its founding, the foundation has awarded 6,500 college scholarships, helping 1,700 students graduate from college.

Along with Delaware State University, Eastern was one of the first two colleges to pilot the foundation’s Opportunity Scholars program in 2016. The unique partnership has grown to more than 70 universities nationwide, and Eastern has had the largest number of Opportunity Scholars over the program’s existence.

With 159 current scholars, more than 75 students in the first two graduating classes in 2020 and 2021, and 28 students planning to enter Eastern next semester, more than 260 Opportunity Scholars will have called Eastern their “home away from home” by this coming fall. Eastern’s Opportunity Scholars have excelled: several have held leadership positions in student government; the 2020 class had a 98 percent graduation rate; and one of those graduates was recently accepted into Harvard Medical School.

Opportunity Scholars come to Eastern and other partner colleges from 20 “locked out” states — from Alaska to South Carolina, Idaho and Georgia. These states either do not allow undocumented students to attend public institutions in their states or charge the students out-of-state tuition, putting a college education out of financial reach. Even those students in the Opportunity Scholars program attending Eastern do so without funds from the State of Connecticut or federal assistance such as work-study funds or Pell Grants.

In late March, Escutia and fellow Opportunity Scholar Frida Nieto-Gonzalez ’24 attended the first “Supporting Undocumented Students’ College and Career Equity: Strategies for Success” (SUCCESS) national conference at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Administrators, faculty and students from more than 40 colleges, universities and other organizations came together at the conference to discuss how best to support and advocate for undocumented students. The conference was sponsored by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, TheDream.US and Immigrants Rising, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting undocumented people.

Students Edgar Escutia ('24) and Frida Nieto-Gonzalez ('24), Opportunity Scholars who attended the event.
Frida Nieto-Gonzalez '24 and Edgar Escutia ’24

Eastern President Elsa Núñez was a featured speaker at the event and challenged her fellow university leaders to build the infrastructure on their campuses needed to support undocumented students as they transition to college in unfamiliar surroundings.

Over the years, academic support systems developed at Eastern include an Academic Success Center that provides one-stop-shopping for advising, tutoring, career development and other academic support services; an early-warning system for at-risk students; a “Six-Week Challenge” to engage students during the critical period when they first arrive on campus; and the development of a four-year academic plan during a student’s first semester on campus.

Núñez said college campuses need to “institutionalize infrastructure” — not just tutoring, advising, counseling and other academic support services, but also developing ways to “support the emotional impact that they will be feeling leaving home in those locked out states,” so that students’ personal and family issues are addressed.

Núñez also highlighted the work of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which she serves as co-chair of the alliance’s steering committee. Núñez encouraged conference attendees to use this national network of more than 500 colleges and universities to advocate for undocumented students across the country, and spoke of the importance of providing students a voice to speak for themselves.

In addition to advocacy by college officials, “Students (need to) have a mechanism to get to and influence what is happening at the federal level,” said Núñez. “Our students have issues with their families. They have financial issues. It is up to us to facilitate their action. It is our moral responsibility to do that. They can’t do that on their own. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money and they don’t have the expertise.”

Núñez also has helped develop a network of public and private colleges and universities in Connecticut that can focus their attention and resources on the needs of undocumented students. All public colleges and universities and most private institutions in Connecticut are now members of the alliance.

In addition to building academic support systems and giving students opportunities to advocate for themselves, another theme that emerged during the SUCCESS conference was the importance of treating each undocumented student with respect. Too often, the news media creates identities of convenience for groups of people that are composed of individuals with unique circumstances and personal stories.

Students Edgar Escutia ('24) and Frida Nieto-Gonzalez ('24), Opportunity Scholars who attended the event with Donald Graham, founder of TheDream.US.
Frida Nieto-Gonzalez '24 and Edgar Escutia ’24 with Donald Graham (center), founder of TheDream.US

“One of the hot topics at the conference was the ‘Dreamer Narrative,’” explained Chris Ambrosio, director of Opportunity Programs at Eastern, who attended the conference. “This is the idea that people tend to speak heroically about those that have DACA [status] or TheDream.US scholarship. When talking about how high achieving, driven and wonderful our students are, we add pressure, expectations and don’t acknowledge that some of our students will struggle academically, make bad decisions at times, and not live up to the model ‘Dreamer.’”

Nieto-Gonzalez said she welcomed the chance to delve deeper into conversations on the Dreamer Narrative and other topics with other undocumented students who attended the SUCCESS Conference. “It’s a lot of pressure for us. For DACA, you have to go to (college) and get a job, yet the country does so much to keep you from getting there. Not all students who come here want to go to college,” said the Georgia resident and native of Mexico.

“You feel like you have to be better than everyone else to earn your place here. We have the different pressure of our families. They left everything they ever knew to bring us here. It’s a deeper conversation of whether we want to accept this narrative the government made for us or change it.”

Both Nieto-Gonzalez and Escutia said the conference was an emotional experience they hadn’t expected. After returning to her hotel room the second evening, Nieto-Gonzalez made her nightly phone call to her mother, and told her mother, “I’m not alone here. I have this community now, and I want to make it better for them. I got her crying and she said, ‘Tell your father again what you just told me.’”

Undocumented students in the United States continue to face an uncertain future. In July 2021, a U.S. District Court in Texas declared the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) program to be illegal and directed the federal government to stop issuing new DACA permits. Since 2012, DACA has been one of the protections allowing undocumented students to work in the United States and attend college. Further court rulings are pending and the program’s future is in question.

In closing her own remarks, Núñez challenged her fellow university leaders to raise their voices in advocating for secure protections for undocumented students and a permanent pathway to citizenship. “The next 18 months will call us to ask the question – how far am I going to go for these students?” she said. “We all talk a good game, but at what point do we say enough is enough, and I’m going to stand up for my students.”

Written by Amanda Irwin; Contributor: Ed Osborn