John Jay’s Immigrant Student Success Center offers resources, comfort, and community.
by Abe Loomis
“You feel distraught when you lose everything you know,” Jessica ’19 says, reflecting on her experience as an immigrant student, “but you try to catch up as much as you can.” For Jessica, who fled violence in her native Ecuador with her sister at eight years old to join her parents in Rockland County, New York, “catching up” meant overcoming fear, learning a new language, taking AP classes, and earning grades good enough to place her on the honor roll at school—and then realizing that despite all of her hard work, she still might not be able to attend college.
“I remember telling my mom, ‘What’s the point if they’re going to deny me just because I don’t have a social security number?’” Jessica says. “Moments like those happened throughout high school. I would be proud of myself, but I would question if that would be enough to overcome my barrier of not being documented.”
Now a wife, a new mother, and the first in her family to attend college, the proud Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient and winner of the Litza and Samuel Schlanger Scholarship has proven her ability to succeed. But that doesn’t mean it has been easy. Last year, while pregnant, working, attending school, and overwhelmed by all of it, she needed support. And thanks to the efforts of students, faculty, and administrators who had worked to bring to life John Jay’s Immigrant Student Success Center (ImSSC)—the first of its kind in the CUNY system—she had somewhere to turn. “Something that I appreciate so much about the Center,” Jessica says, “is that it is a safe place. It is somewhere where you don’t feel watched, you don’t feel persecuted, or put into certain boxes because of who you are. It’s not, ‘Oh, you’re an immigrant,’ or ‘Oh, you’re undocumented,’ it’s ‘Hey, how are you? Come in!’”
Fostering that sense of welcome is the job of Immigrant Student Success Center Manager Cynthia Nayeli Carvajal, who was herself an undocumented immigrant for 14 years before receiving permanent residency. Carvajal envisions the Center, which officially opened in October 2018, as a source of empowerment for students, achieving that end by sharing information, encouraging mentoring, facilitating advocacy, and referring students to educational, financial, and legal services. But she also sees it simply as a place for students to feel safe and supported. “Part of it is definitely to do programming and to advocate for students,” Carvajal says. “But its creation, at the heart of it, was really for it to serve as a space for students to feel seen, to feel connected, and to be in community with others who are experiencing similar things.”
The need for a dedicated space to support immigrant students emerged from conversations among students, faculty, and administrators. In 2015, Assistant Professor Isabel Martinez, Director of the Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project, followed up on a comment from a student in one of her classes and found that immigrant students at John Jay had few resources purposefully designed to support their success. With help from Kate Szur, Director of Student Academic Success Programs, Martinez began to identify individuals whom immigrant students could seek out for assistance and to build a webpage listing these resources. Soon after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, she and Associate Director for Student Success Initiatives Nancy Yang began to host “Pizza Mondays,” where students could discuss their worries, share helpful information, and connect over a slice.
Then, in collaboration with Professor José Luis Morín, Chairperson of the Latin American and Latino/a Studies Department, Martinez and Yang met with stakeholders on campus including the Division of Student Affairs, the Financial Aid Office, the Department of Public Safety, and the Office of Legal Counsel, to map out concerns and solutions for undocumented students.
“We cannot talk about the success and well being of John Jay students without talking about immigrant students,” Martinez says. “Thirty-three percent of the John Jay student population is immigrant, a number that balloons if we consider students who are children of immigrants. In accepting immigrant students, whether they are undocumented, DACAmented or otherwise, we have made a commitment to them, to see them through to graduation, and it is our responsibility as an institution to provide the resources that can help ensure that.”
Adds Yang, “Our Immigrant Student Success Center is an exclamation that John Jay College supports and cares about undocumented students. I am beyond thrilled that the Center is led by Cynthia Carvajal, someone who is thoughtful and creative about meeting undocumented student needs and has designed a variety of programming in just a few short months.”
Lisa ’20, a Criminology major, says the presence of the Center on campus has made a huge difference in her life. For Lisa, whose family left Guyana after they were robbed at gunpoint in the restaurant they owned, having a space to be with others who have faced challenges like hers brings a sense of community and solidarity.
“It’s especially hard for undocumented students,” Lisa says, “because there are so many barriers that we have to go through and so many challenges in terms of finding ways to connect with other people who are undocumented, or to have a support system, or to just have someone to be able to talk to about what they’re experiencing. It’s very empowering to see so many students who are undocumented come into this safe space. They don’t have to say that they’re undocumented, but it’s nice to know that it’s a location where I can have fun and just talk about issues and things like that and know that the people around me have experienced, or have family members who have experienced, similar situations as me.”
Kai ’18, an alumna who is now a first-year Public Policy graduate student at Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University, was thrilled to hear of the Center’s launch. While at John Jay—a community she says she found deeply supportive of undocumented students—she consulted with a lawyer outside the community whose advice she says turned out to be inaccurate. “Eventually,” she says, “I was able to check with a second attorney who was an immigration attorney and very knowledgeable. That person corrected everything that the previous attorney told me to do. So, I feel like having an actual Center where students can turn to someone, where students can get direct and straightforward answers, is something that the school lacked before, and now students stand a better chance of being properly advised.”
Along with such advantages, Carvajal notes, comes expanded awareness in the broader community, and practical measures to protect students. In response to incidents students reported, she says, the Center has been working to provide a deportation defense manual for students. “It often goes unsaid on school campuses, because we focus on education and how to make sure they graduate, but in between all of that, students are still dodging Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and dodging the impact of deportation on their communities.”
“We cannot talk about the success and well-being of John Jay students without talking about immigrant students.”
Carvajal is also quick to point out the importance of student activism in moving the Center from concept to reality. One alumna who saw that process up close was Diana ’18. She won a fellowship this year with Immigrant Justice Corps in New York City, working to provide legal representation to immigrant communities. Diana says the conversation about a space to support immigrant students was already under way when she arrived at John Jay. “I think it’s really beautiful to praise or to highlight John Jay as the first school to have that Center,” Diana says, “but I think it’s also important to highlight the individuals who worked behind the scenes—students, professors, and staff—before there was even a Center. They’re the real reason why the Center is opened and flourishing now.”
For Jessica, Lisa, and many others, the result of that work has been, finally, a place that feels like home. “I remember going to Cynthia and crying because I didn’t know what to do,” Jessica says. “I was tired, I was pregnant, I was freaking out about all these things, balancing school, work, and trying to live at the same time. And she said, ‘don’t worry, here are some resources. Don’t worry, come if you want to cry, come if you want to talk.’ I think it’s amazing they opened the Center, and I thank God that they did and that it was available for me when I needed it.”