Recess Blog

Undocumented Emerging Adults' Roles

By Rob Schroeder
January 28, 2016

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The United States’ immigrant population is reaching a new tipping point.

As undocumented immigrant populations swelled in the 1980s and 1990s, the children of immigrant families are navigating their own pathways through elementary and secondary schools.  Nearly 2.1 million undocumented students stand to benefit from the DREAM Act and its educational opportunities to obtain legal status.

New research from the College’s Dalal Katsiaficas (right), PhD, assistant professor of educational psychology, is shedding new light on attitudes of and perceptions toward undocumented emerging adults.  Her studies indicate that despite not having a direct pathway to citizenship, these youths are demonstrating the fundamental acts of citizenry through their contributions to their communities. She argues that current developmental theory, which suggests that the college years are a period of self-focus is inaccurate. Instead, the experiences of undocumented students in her studies reflect a symbiosis between undocumented students and families and communities dually supporting one another.  The research highlighted extremely high rates of contributions by undocumented emerging adults to families and communities.

Katsiaficas’ research contributed to a large national study of 900 undocumented college students, probing how often and in what domains they contribute to families and communities.

“Undocumented emerging adults possess an enormous amount of cognitive flexibility in how they navigate systems,” Katsiaficas said. “In a sense, they are independent but they are managing those messages along with values of collective contribution.” She notes that they are often the bridges between their families and communities and the larger social institutions they navigate on their behalves. 

This dynamic plays out across a variety of settings in what Katsiaficas calls “collective contribution.”  For example, a family may make significant sacrifices to offer emotional and financial support towards an undocumented emerging adult’s college education. In return, undocumented students in the study would often navigate social intuitions on behalf of family and community members, by mentoring, translating, and advocating for them.

An additional participatory action research study, collecting 18 interviews and family maps, found that the concept of family to undocumented emerging adults was not limited to nuclear families but included transnational families made up of communities, friends and colleagues at school.  Undocumented emerging adults, in their giving back to family and community, directly contributed to the success of these individuals.

These findings are particularly striking in the face of current developmental theories, which suggest that college aged “emerging adults” enter into a period that is characterized as self-focused (Arnett, 2000).

"These students are anything but, as emerging into adulthood seems to instill an awakening of the ways in which they can further contribute to their families and communities," Katsiaficas said.

Katsiaficas stresses the period of emerging adulthood for undocumented students need to be viewed as more expansive than simply completing a college education.  Undocumented emerging adults are often precluded from entering into adult rites of passage such as earning employment even after earning a college degree.

 “All these types of social roles can be out of reach,” Katsiaficas said. “It’s critical we open opportunities so that success won’t begin and end with higher education.”

She hopes her research will re-conceptualize the roles of undocumented emerging adults in their communities.  So much public dialogue expends on the resources that need to be allocated to undocumented students, which certainly are critical, but Katsiaficas argues the resources and contributions the students allocate back to their communities often is ignored.  Access to public and higher education for undocumented students, she says, impacts not just the student but their communities at large.

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