Professors as Personal Champions


12077026_1027986113911247_301221065_nWe overcome incredible obstacles as undocumented students to arrive at the university. Admission is certainly a high achievement, but it also sets off a new range of challenges. How do I access financial resources? What must I do now to be competitive for graduate school? Or the job market? How can I make the best out of my time at the university?

To soar beyond these uncertainties and more, you will need allies, mentors, and champions at the university. For this reason, my foremost advice to undocumented undergraduates is: Connect with Professors!

And here are reasons why:

  1. Letters of recommendation

Scholarship and graduate school applications require these letters. You want to gather a small pool of people who will eagerly write you a letter, even if it’s three days before deadline! Do this early on.

Professors are ideal candidates as they can vouch for your academic work. They can also speak to your character, and other achievements. Have at least two professors who you can count on.

Don’t be in a position where you meet all scholarship requirements, for instance, but don’t apply because you can’t find a letter writer. This happened to Alfredo, a buddy of mine. It’s unfortunate and could have been easily avoided. Professors enjoy meeting motivated students like you.

  1. Their teachings go beyond the classroom

Don’t relate to professors strictly as a student. This limits the knowledge you can absorb from them. Become collaborators, mentor & protégé, research partners, co-authors, or even co-presenters at a conference.

Build these partnerships with professors you most connect with. I’ve had the fortune of working with many professors at this level. They’ve taught me about academia as a profession, the ethics of argumentation, organizing a conference, requesting funding for academic enrichment, even red wine. More subtle skills, too, like sincere listening, moving away from problem determined narratives, and how to successfully push boundaries.

You won’t only benefit academically from engaging as collaborators. You’ll genuinely grow as a person. With my earliest professor-collaborator, I’ve gone on to establish community based philosophy groups and state wide conferences. We’ve known each other for seven years now, and we’re still coming up with new ventures.

  1.      Finding funding opportunities

University scholarships are often badly advertised. You may have to know the right professor, counselor, or staff member to learn about them.

The professors you connect with have likely mentored students for years. So they know the scholarships students apply for – which are very selective, which have high acceptance rates, and how bests to present yourself for each one. Various scholarships also require that you have a faculty mentor to even apply, so your professor can help here as well. Not only can they help you identify hardly known sources of aid, but help you qualify for them as well.

  1. Help you enter and present at conferences

Presenting at academic conferences can significantly bolster your graduate school application. Your application is more than your GPA, and by presenting at these gatherings you demonstrate advanced knowledgeable in your discipline – since your sharing original research with an academic audience in your field.

Conferences can also be fun. You often travel to large hotels or other universities, to exchange ideas with equally motivated and bright scholars. This is a key part of the academic profession, during undergrad and beyond.

But what conference is right for you? Do you need funding to attend? How do you prepare a conference paper? Have you chosen an appropriate delivery? These are questions a professor can answer, as attending conferences is normal for them. 

  1. Become your research advisers

Doing original research gives you academic distinction. It says you’ve studied your field and are ready to put forward your own questions and analysis. It tells graduate programs and scholarship committees that you’re a serious scholar.

But how do you turn a class assignment into a paper you can deliver at a conference or even publish in a journal?

This is where your professors can step in.

Find professors with research interests that align with yours – maybe macroeconomics or poststructuralism intrigues you both – and present them with a research project you want to take on. Ask them to oversee it. They love to see students sincerely interested in evolving their knowledge. As your research adviser they can: ensure the scope of the project is do-able, coach you on methodology, guide you to the latest literature, sharpen your arguments, and keep your momentum alive.

Also, it’s okay to reach out to professors you’ve never had in class, or who teach in another university. Email is your friend.

Faculty can be your greatest allies in the university. They know what resources the school offers, and how their departments can support your advancement. Moreover, having someone believe in you, and set high expectations can be one of the greatest gifts. Work on these relationships. They will set you up for future success. Remember, college is not the final stop, it’s only a pathway in a longer and exciting journey to come.

Jairo is a writer and community organizer in San Diego. Born in Michoacan, Mexico, he has lived in the U.S. since age 2. Jairo received his B.A. in Literature & Writing from California State University, San Marcos. Aware that out of 1.4 million undocumented students only an estimated 10,000 pursue college, Jairo is committed to increasing the number of undocumented college graduates nationwide.


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