Journey from Locked Out States to a College Education: Spotlight on Eastern Connecticut State University with TheDream.US Program


College presidents and organizations have the potential to play a powerful role in working with and for undocumented students and activists. President Elsa Núñez of Eastern Connecticut State University, one of the universities in TheDream.US program that provides tuition and fees and room and board scholarships to undocumented students, has been particularly active and vocal in building institutional support for undocumented students. Eastern Connecticut welcomed their first cohort of TheDream.US Scholars in 2016, and have served over 160 undocumented students to date, many of whom come from locked out states in the South where they are banned from accessing in-state tuition and barred from attending their state universities. Many TheDream.US Scholars at Eastern Connecticut were extensively involved in immigrant rights activism in their home states and continued to organize support and community for undocumented students when they arrived at Eastern. President Núñez and key practitioners on campus have played a critical role in working with and for undocumented students and student leaders.

Our team with UndocuScholars, Rachel and Robert, worked with two undocumented student leaders at Eastern Connecticut, Daniel and Daniela, in collaboration with filmmakers Brenda and Mohammad to create a short film about Eastern Connecticut and to write this blog post. Check out the film here!

This film is the second film in the College Presidents with Undocumented Students Series sponsored by UndocuScholars. Check out the first film about President Brian Murphy of De Anza College, a community college in California!

President Núñez’s Viewpoints on the Role of a Public University

President Núñez views a public university as critical to educating all students in the United States. She says they have an “obligation to educate everyone who lives in Connecticut and everyone who can’t get an education in their home state.” Many states have passed policies that ban undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition, effectively banning them from a college education. President Núñez argues that public universities play an imperative role in providing an education to undocumented students in these locked out states.

She says, “The parents of these students actually pay taxes in their home states and so I always wondered why couldn’t they get access to public higher education if they’re paying taxes? It’s their revenue and that’s really the philosophy behind making sure that a public education is available to everyone no matter what your status is in this country.”

She describes how it was a multi-year process to build institutional support for undocumented students on her campus: “There’s a culture on every college campus- a university campus- and that culture is in many ways shaped by the leadership of the institution. We weren’t pushing people into accepting undocumented students, we were asking them to consider the political, economic, and moral arguments that I was making. And eventually everybody came on board.”

TheDream.US Program and Eastern Connecticut State University

Eastern Connecticut State University is part of TheDream.US program, the nation’s largest college access and success program for undocumented students. TheDream.US has worked with over 75 partner colleges to ensure financial and academic support and success for over 4,000 undocumented students to date. Eastern Connecticut State University joined TheDream.US program three years ago in 2016 to admit undocumented students from states that ban undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition. Undocumented students at Eastern come from many states including Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri, and Wisconsin and were born in many countries including Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Trinidad.

Freedom at Eastern: Student Organization on Campus

Once undocumented students arrived on Eastern Connecticut’s campus, they organized their own student advocacy group, Freedom at Eastern, which was inspired by the name of Freedom University in Georgia. Freedom University, a modern day freedom school for undocumented students in the state of Georgia, was founded by students and professors in 2011 and offers courses in social justice, literature, science, and art all with an aim of empowering undocumented youth and fulfilling their human right to an education.

Students at Freedom at Eastern continue this mission by organizing rallies, workshops, and trainings on campus. Freedom at Eastern emphasizes the importance of dropping the Dreamer narrative in order to be more inclusive of the undocumented community who do not fit the Dreamer profile. The students have also taken their own initiative to provide information and mentorship to undocumented students from their home states, effectively creating a youth-run pipeline of support between their home states and the university.

Role of President Núñez and Staff in Working with Undocumented Students

Most higher education institutions that are active in supporting undocumented students have issued public statements of support, but President Núñez does much more to support undocumented students and work with her students to ensure their academic success. For example, the campus provides legal assistance and appoints staff members to work specifically with undocumented students. Two staff members on campus, Maribel Sanchez and Bill Bisese, are key go-to figures for undocumented students in terms of social, emotional, and academic support. Maribel and Bill are very knowledgeable about the ever-changing policies for undocumented students and care deeply about their students’ success. The students at Eastern call Maribel their “Connecticut Mom.” Maribel also supports her students by joining them in direct actions in Washington DC.

President Núñez, Maribel, and Bill all think deeply about how to support their undocumented students in being successful as they engage in political and civic activism. For example, President Núñez was particularly supportive to the students at Freedom at Eastern when they were organizing a conference with the undocumented student group at Delaware State University, another university with TheDream.US program that admits undocumented students from locked-out states. When the students told President Núñez about the conference they were organizing, she offered to cover the costs of a charter bus for the students to travel to Delaware.

Family as a Source of Inspiration for President Núñez

President Núñez’s family background greatly shapes her values in immigrant rights and access to a public education. “My father came from Puerto Rico by himself to get a job because operation bootstrap had just occurred in Puerto Rico which was the industrialization of Puerto Rico. And he was a farmer raised on a farm. My parents were farmers and he didn’t have a job so he came to this country similar to the undocumented students’ parents looking for a better life.” Her father had a dream that his children would be very successful. “I’ve worked hard for what I’ve earned, my father and mother worked hard for what they earned. And I think the undocumented students’ families are working hard for what their families earn.”

Bill for In-State Tuition in Connecticut

Eastern Connecticut has also been active in the push for legislation for undocumented students in the state of Connecticut to be able to access financial aid. In 2011, Connecticut passed a bill that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and in 2018, Connecticut passed further legislation that offers undocumented students financial aid. The undocumented youth-led organization Connecticut Students for a Dream led the movement to pass this legislation. In 2010, law school students at Yale volunteered with Connecticut Students for a Dream to draft this proposed legislation. Dr. Núñez took an active role in meeting with these law students to advise them: “The conversations were really important because those conversations formulated the writing of the legislation that was eventually passed… I knew at the end that we could make a reasoned argument to the American public in Connecticut that they were worthy of getting these dollars and so we made not only the political argument but we also made the important argument on moral grounds.”

President Núñez’s Advice to other College Presidents

President Núñez strongly encourages other college presidents to learn about TheDream.US program. She says, “I don’t even have words to express how grateful I am… and how full of admiration I am to TheDream.US organization, the foundation, for what it’s done for this group of students in our country… It’s an honor to be with them side by side and to support these students.” President Núñez is also a member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an organization that brings together college and university leaders committed to building education equity for immigrant, undocumented, and international students. The President’s Alliance is comprised of over 420 presidents and chancellors of public and private colleges and universities.

President Núñez also emphasizes the importance of speaking up against racism and xenophobia. “It is really important in this political climate where… people are expressing points of view that are hateful, that are filled with anger, and displaced fear. I think it’s important for us to… keep our voices strong and to make sure that we are Americans who protect the rights of everyone.”

To learn more about Mohammad Tavakoli and Brenda Y. Lopez’s work, visit And much thanks to everyone who made this film possible! Special thanks to the team at Eastern Connecticut State University: President Elsa Núñez, Maribel Sanchez, Bill Bisese, Edward Osborn, and Katherine Atkinson. Much thanks to the team at TheDream.US Program: Candy Marshall, Gaby Pacheco, Tania Wilcox, and Hyein Lee, and thanks to everyone who gave suggestions to the film and blog post: Audrey D. Paredes, Edwin Hernandez, Jacqueline Delgadillo, Sergio Delgadillo, Miriam Feldblum, and Carolina Valdivia. Photos of Freedom at Eastern are courtesy of Arturo Martinez Del Rello, photos of Freedom University are courtesy of Laura Emiko Soltis and the video of President Núñez’s speech is courtesy of Aaron Flaum and the Norwich Bulletin. Finally, special thanks to the Ford Foundation for making this film possible.

The College Presidents with Undocumented Students Series features video interviews with college presidents who have worked with their students, staff, and faculty to build effective best practices for undocumented students on their college campuses. This series aims to help build a culture across the higher education sector around the importance of creating and building best practices for undocumented students. This series features several college presidents talking about particular best practices on their campuses, the importance of institutional leadership in building these best practices, and how they came to care about this work. 

Rachel is a PhD student at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. She has worked closely with undocumented youth in several regions including California, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC. Rachel has also worked in the higher education sector for Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, MassBay Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, and Achieving the Dream. She received her Masters in Higher Education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and her Bachelors in philosophy from the University of Chicago.

Daniel was born in Guerrero, Mexico and immigrated to Atlanta, Georgia when he was 3 years old. Growing up undocumented in the Deep South, he faced policies that barred him from public universities in the state and disqualified him from instate tuition. Despite these hostile messages that he was not welcomed, he was awarded a full ride scholarship to Eastern Connecticut State University where he is studying Political Science and Sociology. He is one of many in the resistance movement for the complete liberation of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Daniela is a Junior attending Eastern Connecticut State University. She is majoring in Sociology and minoring in Political Science, with plans to attain a career in Student Affairs. She immigrated from Durango, Mexico at the age of 6 and was raised in Athens, GA. She has been involved in activism since she was 16 and has actively done public speaking throughout different universities in GA. She actively fights to bring awareness to the struggle undocumented youth face in order to get a higher education.

Robert is a Professor of Social Science and Comparative Education, the Morgan and Helen Chu Endowed Chair in Asian American Studies, and co-director for the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education at UCLA. His research is broadly focused on race, ethnicity, and the stratification of college opportunity. His work has been influential to federal, state, and institution policy related to college access and affordability. Prior to his appointment at UCLA, he served as a professor at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania.


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