Proposed University Center Offers Support For Undocumented Students In Iowa

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The proposed Dream Center at Buena Vista University was inspired by a similar resource hub,of the same name, at the University of Utah. The two institutions plan to work together to eventually open the center in Iowa.
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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio

The diversity and inclusion division of Buena Vista University (BVU) in Storm Lake has proposed a new center at the school for students of various immigration statuses. This includes students who are undocumented, have a protected status (such as a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) or who are refugees.

It would also offer resources to students with mixed-status families. Students like Kenya Ortega. She’s the first one in her family to go to college.

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“It gives me so much inspiration and hope for not only students like me, I have the privilege to have documentation in the U.S., but for those that don’t,” Ortega said while holding back tears. “Having a program such as this would be such a great benefit for so many people.”

Ortega shared that even though she is a U.S. citizen, she wouldn’t have known how to further her education out of high school without help. She spoke with three other BVU students who are part of Raíces, a student organization that works to amplify Latino voices.

“Speaking for myself and I know Alondra (Ramirez) and Matthew (Marroquín) and Kenya, we are all first-generation college students and we know a lot of the barriers that especially we have faced have been challenging, but the support that we’ve received from the university has definitely helped us succeed,” Alondra Meléndez, vice president of Raíces added. “We believe that an initiative like this, specifically for undocumented students can be very, very beneficial.”

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Other speakers at the announcement emphasized a resource hub like the proposed Dream Center is particularly important in Buena Vista County, due to the high numbers of Hispanic and Latino students who, as Meléndez explained, may face other barriers in seeking higher education.

Joel Berrien Jr., the senior director for Diversity and Inclusion at BVU, said he got the idea for a Dream Center while working with Southern Utah University. He clarifies that although the center is just in its “aspirational phase,” he wants to offer support to students no matter their immigration status.

“I really really really want to learn more about how to best serve this underserved population,” Berrien said.

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A bipartisan research organization found about 2 percent of all higher-education students in the U.S. do not have documents. About 1 percent are DACA recipients.

Storm Lake Community School District Superintendent Stacey Cole said this is a good idea for all students, even those who aren’t in college yet.

“Having a center like this in our community I think would offer such a great amount of support to all our students at the high school,” Cole said.

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Cole described the Dream Center as a way to benefit the entire state, as it could encourage more students to seek higher education. More than half the school district is Hispanic or Latino.

“I think our diversity is one of the greatest aspects that we have,” Storm Lake mayor Mike Porsch said at the announcement. “I think Storm Lake’s just a great community for a Dream Center to be because I think we can offer, as a community, support to the university. And I think the university and the Dream Center can help support our community and make it a richer place.”

High school graduation rates in Iowa are slightly higher than the national average, but slightly lower than U.S. rates in achieving a bachelor’s degree. Only 4 percent of higher education students in Iowa are Hispanic or Latino.

Plans for officially opening it are still in the works, but BVU is looking at the Dream Center at the University of Utah as a model.

The University of Utah Dream Center receives support from the school and from private donors. It does not offer legal advice, but it does offer college access strategies, advising, scholarship support and advocacy training. Berrien said BVU’s center would add one more layer to support by providing “social entrepreneurship opportunities” as well.

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