Undocumented in the Ivory Tower
An excerpt from “Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics”
Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability and Resistance documents the lived experiences of women of color academics who have leveraged their professional positions to challenge the status quo in their scholarship, teaching, service, activism, and leadership. By presenting reflexive work from various vantage points within and outside of the academy, contributors document the cultivation of mentoring relationships, the use of administrative roles to challenge institutional leadership, and more. Through an emphasis on the various ways in which women of color have succeeded in the academy — albeit with setbacks along the way — this volume aims to change the discourse surrounding women of color academics: from a focus on trauma and mere survival to a focus on courage and thriving. Read chapter 18, “Undocumented in the Ivory Tower,” by Alessandra Bazo Veinrich, below.
As an undocumented immigrant in North Carolina during a time when Latinx immigration was new to the state, it did not take long for me to realize that my racialized ethnicity, combined with my immigration status, influenced how people perceived and treated me. This knowledge informed my understanding of the obstacles that I encountered as I navigated the college application process in a state that did not offer tuition equity for undocumented students. Yet, it wasn’t until I became aware of the intersections among my gender, racialized ethnicity, and immigration status that I began to understand how these identities shaped my journey in higher education. In recent years, I have become more vocal about my immigration status in academic spaces. Now a PhD candidate in sociology, I am keenly aware of how my identity as an undocumented Latina has influenced how I experience life in the ivory tower. My experiences with discrimination have shaped every step of my academic journey. Yet these experiences have also helped me to find inspiration in the struggle inherent in being an undocumented student, instructor, and researcher. In seeing the struggle itself as a constant source of bravery, my journey in academia has been validated by my experiences of survival and thrival despite being excluded from some academic spaces and opportunities.
In this essay, I discuss my experiences in academia as an undocumented Latina student, researcher, and instructor. I reflect on times when I relied on bravery to continue moving forward in higher education, and highlight the different ways in which liminally documented academics like myself can negotiate their immigrant identities and find the support necessary to harness their own bravery. My hope is that this essay will resonate with graduate students and early career academics who are undocumented, unDACAmented (i.e., those who have benefitted from Deferred Action from Childhood Arrivals), and those who have other liminal immigration statuses, such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The strategies I provide include taking ownership of immigrant narratives in academic spaces, the role of “coming out” as a source of bravery, and finding meaning in the academic journey itself.
From Fear to Bravery
Since I first arrived in the United States, my immigration status has been something I was taught to hide, to be ashamed of, and to treat with caution. After all, this single fact about myself had the potential to harm me, criminalize me, and result in my deportation. It was because of my immigration status that I was unable to obtain a state driver’s license and was required to pay out of state tuition at public colleges and universities. My undocumentedness was so present in my life that it seemed necessary to remain in the shadows just to maintain a sense of normality for my family and me in the midst of the anxiety associated with our precarious immigration status. In a context with increasingly restrictive immigration policies and practices, and where the threat of deportation was eminent, I hid my undocumented immigration status in order to survive. Being “in the closet” about my undocumented status was crucial to minimize the possibility that I would be forcibly removed from the country, barred from returning to the US, and separated from my family indefinitely.
Though DACA had been announced by the time I began graduate school, I was not able to benefit from this Executive Order until many months later. As such, my decision to continue my journey in academia preceded DACA and was filled with the uncertainties associated with being an undocumented student unable to receive federal or state financial aid, or to even apply for student loans. The fact that being undocumented made me subject to a 10-year bar upon leaving the US also prevented me from applying for a work visa after graduation; I would first have to go to my country of origin to request it. This meant that, even if I could find a way to afford graduate school, there were no guarantees that I could successfully practice my profession in the US after completing my degree.
As I prepared to pursue an advanced degree in sociology, it became clear that even if I were accepted into a graduate program, there were a number of factors that would hinder my chances of enrollment as an undocumented student. I knew that my ineligibility to legally work would prevent me from pursuing teaching or research assistantships, and I wondered whether that might affect my ability to thrive in my graduate program. The expenses associated with a graduate education exacerbated this concern. From meals to books to transportation, my financial responsibilities extended well beyond graduate tuition and fees. I had experienced financial instability before, but I had never done so without a support system around me. I worried that losing my support system would further intensify my financial precariousness as an undocumented student. Knowing that I might be hundreds of miles away from my family, in a place where the cost of living far surpassed the small financial contribution they could afford, made going to graduate school seem unattainable. And, like so many undocumented students before me, I asked myself, “Is it really possible for me to go to graduate school while undocumented?”
Despite these risks, I remained undeterred in applying to and ultimately attending graduate school. Pursuing a graduate degree was more than getting an education for me. Taking this path meant that I did not have to leave the place I called home to pursue my dreams. Surely, I could have left the US and searched for educational opportunities in my native Perú or in other countries, but pursuing education in the US was assurance that I could stay home on my own terms. It meant that, within the endless constraints associated with my immigration status, I could have agency in determining my future. I found the courage to commit to pursuing a graduate education, in knowing that taking this path meant no longer letting my immigration status rob me of opportunities that were seldom afforded to students like me. The fact that I was not even supposed to be in these academic spaces, that people like me did not go to college, much less graduate school, did not limit my drive to continue going forward and to become one of the first undocumented students to earn a PhD. I knew that being included into academic spaces challenged the status quo by bringing people like me into spaces where our existence as college-educated individuals was often unknown, and where the possibility that we could pursue advanced degrees was seldom considered.
My desire to embark on this journey from secrecy to scholarship was also partly driven by my longtime commitment to social justice, particularly justice for fellow undocumented immigrants. Living in North Carolina exposed me to the economic, political, educational, and social exclusion experienced by undocumented immigrants and fueled my desire to eradicate these exclusionary practices. And the anti-immigration and xenophobic climate at the national level further influenced my decision to pursue graduate school, as I witnessed undocumented student-activists march in Washington, DC, and build momentum for their cause in the years following the introduction of the DREAM Act to Congress. I was determined to become a scholar who could publish research on the conditions of the undocumented immigrant population in the US South, providing data that would inform national immigration policy.
As a way to minimize the risks associated with my decision to pursue graduate school, I strategically reached out to one of the few Latinx staff members at my college. I felt that, as a Latina, her views on undocumented students might be more progressive and this motivated me to trust her with the fact that I was undocumented. She acted as an ally in my plans to pursue an advanced degree in sociology and took it upon herself to explore my financial options, reaching out to graduate admissions, program directors, and faculty members at prospective universities. Her help aided me in navigating the graduate application process and finding institutional funds to pursue a master’s degree in sociology. Having this staff member as an ally and first point of contact was paramount in minimizing the risks of pursuing graduate school, and reassured me that, with the right help, it was possible to go to graduate school while undocumented.
“Coming Out” as Undocumented in Academia
As I left North Carolina to begin my graduate studies, I also left behind many of the risks that prevented me from being open about my undocumented status. Much of my fear about “coming out” as undocumented was rooted in the xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment present in North Carolina at the time and the impact that disclosing this could have on my family. Although some of this fear still lingers with me today, leaving that context and my family behind gave me a chance to confront the potential personal and professional consequences of disclosing my immigration status. The competitive, sink or swim culture of academia had made me afraid of the possibility of being further doubted, further questioned, and having to work even harder to prove myself in academic spaces. After all, when it came to my education, there was no Plan B and “coming out” had the potential to put into question my legitimacy and my place in the academy.
Yet I realized that the alternative to coming out was not being true to my identity. I had reached a point in my life when I was ready to incorporate my undocumentedness into the whole of my identity, to no longer hide this important part of who I am. I was fully aware that, at best, disclosing my undocumented immigration status might lead to impertinent questions and uncomfortable interactions with professors and fellow grad students in my department. At worst, it could jeopardize my ability to receive institutional funds to cover the cost of graduate tuition. But, for the first time in my life, I was giving myself permission to shape my own narrative, deciding that coming out would no longer intimidate and scare me.
My time as an instructor for a course on immigration, teaching a group of adult students at the only public university in the city of Boston, gave me a platform and the motivation to begin the process of coming out as undocumented. Having the opportunity to teach at an institution with a large immigrant student population allowed me to witness my students’ bravery in the classroom as they shared their own immigration stories. They talked about their experiences with race relations in Boston as immigrants from Haiti, revisited the hardships their parents and grandparents faced as immigrants from Ireland, and one student even shared his feelings about his own identity as a Mexican-American whose Mexican ancestors became Americans after the US annexed part of Northern Mexico following the Mexican-American War. These stories inspired me to share my own immigration story in the classroom. It was time to go a step further and embrace my full identity in academic spaces where my racialized ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, accent, and nationality were all things that I already embraced and shared openly. In the end, bravery came down to the most fundamental aspect of my being: my identity.
The validation that I received from my students after disclosing my undocumented status gave me the courage to continue sharing my immigration story with faculty and fellow graduate students. The feeling of relief and the weight that came off of my shoulders when I began to reveal my undocumented status in academic spaces was something that made me wonder whether I could have experienced this sense of freedom sooner had I disclosed this information before. Taking ownership of how I disclosed my immigration status allowed me to feel that I was in control of my own immigration narrative and prepared me mentally and emotionally to publicly dis- close my immigration status. After all, coming out meant doing something that could not be undone. To share with my peers and colleagues a fact about myself which might very well be used against me.
I found that disclosing my immigration status required a specific set of conditions that helped me manage such an emotionally overwhelming process. Whether it is an advisor’s commitment to being an ally and advocate in the department, or the solidarity of fellow graduate students by demanding that undocumented students be accorded the same funding and opportunities for research and teaching, the decision to come out should be accompanied by a support system that serves as both a source of emotional support and practical advice. I sought the support of fellow undocumented students, many of whom were undergraduates, as well as the support of faculty of color. It was these individuals who helped me deal with the feelings of guilt over whether I should have disclosed my immigration status sooner that emerged after I finally made public my undocumentedness.
While it takes bravery to negotiate the sharing of such an important and central aspect of one’s identity, this is something that should be done only when mentally and emotionally ready. My journey to “coming out” as undocumented was one that required years of self-reflection and the emotional support of family and friends. Perhaps the most important part of coming out was my own realization that I had to do this for myself. No matter what the reactions of academics were, coming out was a path to a life free of secrecy and fear, and one where the sense of liberation that I feel today would extend to both my personal and professional life.
Reflections on Undocumented Women Academics: The Path Forward
My path to becoming an academic has, by no means, been one of unwavering courage and resilience. There have been times when fear has taken over my ability and willingness to continue pursuing a PhD in sociology, to publicly embrace my undocumented identity, or to be my own advocate in academic spaces. What has remained constant is my ability to find value in this unique journey and to maintain my desire to embrace my full identity as an undocumented Latina in my different facets as a grad student, researcher, and instructor. My roles as researcher and instructor have continuously served as sources of inspiration as I continue to navigate unknown spaces in the academy. As I move forward as an ABD (“all but dissertation”) doctoral candidate and take on more responsibilities as an instructor, I am confident that my experiences with bravery in my different roles will help me better serve students, especially those who are undocumented and liminally documented.
As I think about the future of my research on undocumented immigrants, I also see the value in my ability to be my own advocate. As a graduate student nearing the end of my doctoral program, I am no longer challenged about my academic choices, as I was a few years ago. I have found that in discussions with advisors, professors, and even as I seek funding for my dissertation research, I act as an advocate for my research as I seek to preserve its integrity and essence without jeopardizing its true purpose of giving undocumented immigrant students a voice. Nevertheless, I am aware that there will come a time when I will once again be at the start of something new and I will be ready to advocate for myself.
In writing this essay, I have come to the conclusion that thriving in the academy, as an undocumented woman of color, is more about surviving every step of this unmapped journey than about achieving traditional academic milestones. Recognizing the value in all accomplishments, no matter how small, and having the ability to look at one’s progress through our own eyes, is what makes thriving in academia a reality for the undocumented. It is in seeing our perseverance and courage to navigate the academy that undocumented women of color redefine the meaning of thrival.
Chapter 7, “Undocumented in the Ivory Tower,” from Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics: Bravery, Vulnerability and Resistance, is published with permission from, and gratitude to, Routledge. It is available for purchase on the Routledge website here, and on Amazon here.
Alessandra Bazo Vienrich, is a PhD candidate in Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Boston. Alessandra Bazo Vienrich was born in Lima, Peru and raised in Kernersville, North Carolina. She is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and benefited from DACA until 2017. She is passionate about breaking boundaries as a student, researcher, and instructor, and does research on undocumented immigrant college students, and teaches courses on race, ethnicity, and immigration.