First-of-its-kind federal resource guide helps educators support undocumented youths

San Francisco State University junior Pamela Ortiz was dismayed when a political science professor at a community college she previously attended referred to her and other undocumented students in the class as “illegals.”

The teacher may have been joking, but Ortiz, an undocumented student, didn’t find it funny.

“You wouldn’t call an LGBT student by a derogative term in a classroom, and it feels the same way to us; the term ‘illegal’ is very derogatory,” Ortiz said. “It makes it very hard to focus on school when you feel unsafe and unwanted in the classroom.”

Such instances are what the U.S. Department of Education is hoping to curb with the release Tuesday of the agency’s first-ever resource guide for educators, school leaders and community organizations to better support undocumented youths in high school and college.

At a panel Tuesday morning at SFSU of nearly a dozen undocumented students, including Ortiz, John King, senior advisor delegated duties of deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, explained the 63-page guide aims to clarify legal rights of undocumented students and share information about their financial aid options.

“Part of the goal of the guide is to make sure [educators] have good information so that students can see their range of possibilities,” King said after the panel.

King noted that many undocumented students, even some who spoke at the panel, are unaware of their options after high school. As little as 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students in the U.S. attend college today.

“Many times folks in high schools may not know what opportunities are available for students, and then students become discouraged and don’t finish their education,” King said. “We want to make sure there’s good information out there.”

“When we talk with students, we hear the continued problem is misconceptions,” King said. “This guide is an attempt to correct those missed opportunities and expand options for kids.”

A major misconception is that undocumented students cannot legally attend school or work, said King. Per the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, certain undocumented youths who enter the U.S. before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 may receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.

SFSU has long welcomed undocumented students in its classrooms. In 2008-2009, the university began working directly with the some 60 undocumented students enrolled by providing them information about scholarships and other pathways to aid their education, said Nancy Jodaitis, an advisor for undocumented students at SFSU.

“In the past couple of years, my emphasis has shifted a little from working directly with students [to] trying to see what steps and institutional policies can be developed,” Jodaitis said.

The school today has more than 640 undocumented students, and on Tuesday Luoluo Hong, SFSU’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, announced the school’s intent to hire a full-time DREAM coordinator to work specifically with undocumented students.

“This is important to continue to signal our support for all of our students and to continue our efforts around education and social justice for our community,” Hong said.

Hydra Mendoza, Mayor Ed Lee’s senior advisor on education and family services and a San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education commissioner, said the resource guide will help The City’s public high schools provide college and other information for undocumented students.

“We kind of take for granted that we live in San Francisco, and that as a district we take any and all kids, and we have a really robust English language learner program, but when it comes to what happens next, we’re not as good about that,” said Mendoza.

Federal education officials plan to share the guide with teachers and guidance counselors at high schools and colleges throughout the U.S. in the coming months, as well as develop a guide for elementary and middle school students.

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