My Journey to Academia as a Formerly Undocumented Scholar


I was unsure whether I would ever enroll in college after high school, let alone become a professor and researcher. My journey to higher education mirrors the experiences of many undocumented immigrants and deeply motivated my work in the community college system and research agenda. In the mid-1990’s when I completed high school, attention to the educational barriers encountered by undocumented youth was scant. A timid and mid-tier student, I flew under the radar. I performed well enough academically to avoid negative attention from school staff, but I also failed to draw positive attention and was not placed in advanced coursework nor participated in extracurricular activities. The one conversation I had with a school counselor regarding college ended when, fearing questions about my status, I lied and said I was not interested in college. Post-high school, I entered the workforce full-time and eventually enrolled in a community college part-time. I graduated with an associate degree after four years and completed the bachelor’s degree through an adult-friendly evening program. I covered community college tuition by working, and the four-year college tuition by maxing out my mother’s credit card.

The challenges I encountered pursing college motivated my career in higher education. After getting married, I started the process of adjusting my status and started working in the community college system. Across various roles, I developed and managed programs to improve the access, retention, and completion rates of underrepresented and low-income students. Although my roles were not exclusive to undocumented students, I continued to witness the fear and uncertainty they experience. Research on undocumented students at the time was still very limited, and I ached to shed light on the consequences of legal exclusion. I conducted my first research project in 2005 while pursuing a master’s in educational leadership at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). The initial project consisted of interviewing 8 undocumented college students and was the catalyst for a collaborative project with NEIU professors and graduate students totaling 40 interviews. Finding a love for research, I left the community college system after nine years and started a joint MSW/PhD program in social work in 2012.  

Research Interests and Trajectory 

Logo credit: Eva Diaz

My research agenda focuses on the educational and developmental trajectories of Latinx undocumented immigrants living in the Chicagoland area. The beginnings of this agenda are present in the first article I published in 2007 with Erica Meiners based on my master’s thesis. The article urged educators to consider the interlocking relationships between immigration policies and education, including how immigration policy shapes undocumented students’ experiences and educational trajectories. Over the years, my work has continued to examine these interlocking relationships. The research project I am currently conducting examines the role of high school staff in supporting undocumented students’ transition to college. In part, I am interested in how high school staff in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs navigate the layers of policies—including those at the school, local, and state and federal levels—, impacting undocumented students and what shapes the resources they provide students. 

In addition to immigration and education, my dissertation work added a developmental and timing perspective. As part of the MSW program, I interned at a detention center for unaccompanied teenage boys. My previous work, and much of the scholarship on undocumented childhood arrivals, centers immigrants arriving in early and middle childhood, known as the “1.5 generation.” Belonging to the 1.5 generation, I saw my story reflected in my research and that of others. Working with unaccompanied minors, however, jolted what I thought I knew about “childhood” arrivals and shifted my lens to the differences among childhood migrants due to their age at arrival—what I call the timing of immigration. 

My dissertation examined the pathways to adulthood of teenage arrivals—the 1.25 generation. A key consideration in research centering the 1.25 generation is the wide-ranging variation possible in their experiences, challenges, access to support systems, and trajectories. Teenage arrivals possess greater agency in the decision to immigrate and their circumstances at arrival position them very differently from the 1.5 generation. Those with parents in the U.S. may enroll in school but encounter disadvantages because of their arrival-age. For example, they are often placed in courses below their ability levels and experience cultural distance from other Latinx students. These challenges rob them of resources and support during their transition to college. Other 1.25 generation youth never enroll in school after immigrating. Residing without a parent in the U.S., they may be shut out of education because of financial or caregiving responsibilities. An emerging body of literature is shedding light on 1.25 generation unaccompanied minors; however, much remains under-explored including variation by the local context, such as differences in cooperation with immigration enforcement and access to transportation, education, jobs. How differences in access to legal protections, including asylum and DACA, shapes their experiences is another under-explored area. Finally, more research is also needed to understand variations in their school experience within and post-high school. 

Reflection and Advice 

I completed the doctoral program in 2018. Although technically an early career scholar, my involvement with research related to undocumented immigrants spans 16 years. I was undocumented when I started the work but have moved to a position of privilege, consisting of citizenship, a tenure-track position, and economic stability. The advice I offer is shaped by my shifting positionality, what I struggled with, and what I found helpful. I offer this knowing my advice is shaped and limited by my positionality. 

Photo credit: Pattern

First, lean into your lived experience and understand its immense value. As a doctoral student at the University of Chicago I often felt insecure. My prior educational background lacked prestige, I was older than most graduate students, and was raising children. I felt insecure about my theoretical knowledge, writing skills, and inability to solely focus on graduate school. With time, I realized theoretical knowledge can be learned and your writing skills can be improved. But lived experience—and the instincts this provides—cannot be taught. Rather than feeling deficient, I wish I had recognized earlier the value of the experiential knowledge I possessed and leaned into those strengths. 

Second, view your experiences through a critical lens and make space for divergent experiences. This requires understanding our disadvantages and advantages and reflecting on how the intersection of these shape our experiences. For example, despite the challenges I encountered as an undocumented Latina, I benefited from a middle-class upbringing before immigrating. The middle-class background supported a strong early academic background and facilitated access to the tourist-visa under which my family immigrated. Reflection and acknowledgment of the advantages I benefit from, opens space to notice differences in the lives of undocumented immigrants and the societal forces shaping unequal outcomes and trajectories.   

Lastly, be kind to yourself. The pressures of academia often get internalized through perfectionism and self-criticism. The realities of navigating a system not built for scholars from marginalized backgrounds feeds our imposter syndrome, the nagging and constant doubt of our abilities. This negatively impacts our relationship to the work, writing, and overall well-being. As a formerly undocumented scholar, I want the work to feel expansive rather than stifling, but academia is not setup this way. Ultimately, systemic change is needed. At the individual level, however, I find practicing self-compassion helpful. Self-compassion shifts my inner chatter and source of motivation. I constantly remind myself I am human and allowed to make mistakes. I am not engaged in the work to create a perfect product beyond criticism (a daunting task for flawed humans). Rather, I am engaged in the work because I have something meaningful to contribute to the collective conversation. Because I care about myself and the work, I give myself permission to try to contribute to the conversation without expecting perfection. This has positively changed my relationship to my work and to writing and functions as a form of resistance to the pressures of academia.  

DAYSI immigrated from Ecuador at the age of nine and was undocumented until her late twenties. Her experiences shaped her professional and research interests in the educational and developmental trajectories of Latinx undocumented immigrants. Daysi is currently an assistant professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her PhD and MSW from the Crown Family School of Social Work, Practice, and Policy at The University of Chicago. She also holds an M.A. in Educational Leadership from Northeastern Illinois University.


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