Pushed by students, Dominican now honored for leading way on undocumented collegians

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Arianna Salgado, 21, doesn't hesitate to say she is one of the undocumented students attending Dominican University in River Forest who is dreaming of becoming a U.S. citizen someday.

Likewise, Stephanie Zavala, 20, also born in Mexico, but raised near here, is teaming with Salgado at Dominican to educate everyone about what it means to be an undocumented student.

Salgado, a history major, who is an aspiring teacher, and Zavala whose aim is to earn a Master's degree in social work, have been growing the Dominican Immigrant Student Collective (DISC), which has become a space where students such as themselves can come out of the shadows to share their life stories with peers, allies and faculty members interested in helping them make the change. 

This ongoing, on-campus advocacy around the issues of immigration reform, says Dr. Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University, is one of the reasons the school is receiving the Moral Courage Award from the national nonprofit, Faith in Public Life, an organization that is dedicated to promoting the voices of progressive faith leaders in the public square.

On Feb. 22, as part of a student summit on immigration reform at Loyola University in Chicago, Dominican will be celebrated for that pioneering leadership in, and support for, the rights of undocumented students.

"We feel privileged to receive the recognition, and I am excited because it recognizes student leadership," says Carroll. 

Carroll believes the Moral Courage Award also came to them because Dominican has been "out there expressing our beliefs and our commitment to reasonable immigration reform, and the rights of students, earlier than many, many institutions."  

Still, in recent years, the pool of Catholic institutions that are taking a stand on immigration reform is widening, she says.

Even so, Carroll says that "Dominican had the courage to speak up for our students and their experiences early on [because] we are a Catholic institution that believes in social justice, and although it has had its scary moments, I have found that people [and donors] generally are very supportive of that," says the educator, who led the university in creating a privately funded tuition scholarship program for qualified undocumented youth.

"I am an educator, and I believe that out of that mission, that at the university if you have talented students who merit admission academically, or who merit scholarships financially, that there should be no discrimination," she says.  "It was the moment when student leadership became the catalyst in the Dreamer movement that Dominican, and I personally, became more aware of the obstacles and challenges for these very talented students." 

Out of the shadows

Early on, though, Salgado, as a junior in high school, found out that actually going to college, for her, would not be easy.

"I started my college application process, which was very complicated because the high school where I was attending was uninformed about the college process, and when I gathered up the nerve to speak to my counselor, she told me that until I had a Social Security number, I would not get accepted into a college," Salgado says.  "That was completely wrong, and I knew that information was wrong, but she didn't want to put in any effort to look into other options."

Subsequently, Salgado and her mom began engaging with groups involved in immigration reform advocacy, and Dominican University became her first choice school.

Since then, she has secured a two year "Deferred Action," status which does provide her with a work privilege, and a Social Security number, for now. 

Zavala often publicly shares a similar story, where she recounts how she arrived in the U.S. from Mexico at age 2, led a normal life, including being a straight A student in Chicago schools.

It was also in her junior year in high school that she learned of her undocumented status.  

She says that at the last minute, Dominican came through with a scholarship opportunity for her.

"There is a lot of hype and excitement for undocumented students to get citizenship and get the opportunities that we deserve, but I think that we also have to focus on the fact that there are also families and communities out there that are being torn apart and separated by deportation," she says.

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