December 2, 2014 – Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ, president of the University of Central America in El Salvador (and one of the six Jesuits and two laywomen murdered 25 years ago) believed that the university must play a critical in interpreting and transforming the structural causes of injustice, using its intellectual gifts to study reality and uncover the truth. As Dr. Michael Lee writes about Ellacuria, “In Ellacuria’s vision of the university, teaching and research are linked by a third unifying element: what Ellacuria calls the social project” (Lee, A Critical Pedagogy of Resistance: Chapter 11). Social projection puts the focus of the university on the wider society, allowing the needs of the poor to orient the research priorities and educational functions of the institution.
Fr. Michael J. Garanzini, SJ, secretary of the Society for higher education, asks that we use the words of former Jesuit Superior General Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, to reflect on the understanding of justice and its role in the Jesuit university: “Every Jesuit academy of higher learning is called to live in a social reality…and to live for that social reality, to shed university intelligence upon it and to use university influence to transform it.” After years of conversation with students, research, and reflection on the experiences of undocumented students in higher education, St. Peter’s University responded to a major justice issue of our time by creating The Center for Undocumented Students (TCUS).
On November 10, 2014, St. Peter’s University announced the opening of TCUS, formalizing the institution’s commitment to support undocumented students. Through TUCS, St. Peter’s intends to support the academic work of undocumented students and ensure that the University is a community where undocumented students feel welcome. The Center will also look to shed intellectual light on the political and economic realities of immigration.
Why Focus on Undocumented Students?
TCUS was born out of the University’s desire to better serve its students. Faculty and staff, in constant conversation and daily encounters with undocumented students, recognized these students needed additional support. Minority students comprise 76 percent of the student body, the most diverse of any U.S. Jesuit institution of higher education, including a substantial population of documented and undocumented immigrants.
As immigrants themselves, St. Peter’s students were deeply committed to raising awareness about the challenges facing undocumented students, holding vigils and overnight sleep outs urging community members to support the DREAM Act (Federal legislation that would give undocumented students access to financial aid and make it easier for them to pursue higher education). Students organized workshops and teach-ins on legislation that would reform our immigration system and participated in public marches and rallies. Members of St. Peter’s community volunteered to accompany recent immigrants being held at a local detention center.
Equally formative was the University’s involvement in a study conducted by Fairfield University, Loyola University of Chicago and Santa Clara University entitled, “Immigration: Undocumented Students in Higher Education.” In this multi-year project, researchers surveyed the social and legal context and examined the current practices and attitudes towards undocumented students in America Jesuit higher education institutions. The research called for improved institutional practices at Jesuit colleges and universities to help undocumented students flourish on campus and off. As part of the release of the study’s findings, researchers organized students to travel to Washington DC to meet with elected officials and advocate for support of undocumented students through the DREAM Act. Students and faculty from St. Peter’s University met with Congress members Donald Payne and Albio Sires.
University President, Dr. Eugene Cornacchia, has consistently emphasized the need to support undocumented students in pursuing higher education. Signing the university onto national letters in support of comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, speaking at rallies and vigils, and penning a piece for the Huffington Post, Dr. Cornacchia has noted the enormous potential of undocumented students to contribute to our society and that it is the just and Christian response to ensure they have access to a college education.
Support offered by TCUS
The study on undocumented students in Jesuit higher education named the importance of institutions demonstrating public support and reducing the isolation these students often feel from classmates and professors. TCUS will address this, along with practical resources and more for students at St. Peter’s. Services offered by TCUS will include:
TCUS is being co-sponsored by a host of University departments and institutes, belaying the host of faculty, staff, students and University officers who have already attended trainings and expressed a desire to be involved in supporting students.
An opportunity for deeper accompaniment
On an afternoon in May 2014, a group of faculty, staff and students, including an undocumented recent alumna from St. Peter’s who was now studying at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, gathered around a table in the King Kairos Social Justice House. They were discussing hopes and plans for The Center for Undocumented Students. The moment reminded a faculty member of the final passage from Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness where she reflected on the founding of the Catholic Worker:
“We were just sitting there talking… It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened… We cannot know God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”
Faculty and staff at St. Peter’s University exemplify this love in the compassion and companionship they share with students as they make their way through difficult circumstances. These relationships, this sharing of struggles, helps ground the University community in what really matters in life. TCUS will offer a way for the St. Peter’s University to live in a more intentional community with undocumented students, better accompanying them and supporting them as they pursue higher education. TCUS is a social project at St. Peter’s University of which Fr. Ellacuria would be proud.