In Helping Immigrant Students, Jesuit Colleges Hope to Lead the Way

Charles Barry, Santa Clara U.

Santa Clara U. (pictured) is believed to be the only Jesuit institution with a scholarship fund for immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
February 26, 2013

More than a century ago, as the nation's cities swelled with immigrants, colleges and universities run by Jesuit priests offered the new arrivals a place to learn. Buffalo, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Scranton—all soon had Jesuit colleges, many of which forged ties with immigrant communities.

Today, as Congress prepares to take up legislation aimed at overhauling the nation's immigration policies, more than two dozen Jesuit colleges and universities are pledging a return to their founding missions, and have vowed to help immigrant students who are in the country illegally. Spurred by Roman Catholic teachings that stress solidarity, providing assistance to those in need, and cura personalis—"care for the entire person," a philosophical underpinning of Jesuit education—the colleges' leaders say they hope to provide a model for other institutions, religious or not, to follow.

"We do see it as something that's very much in continuity with what we do," said the Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, president of Fairfield University, one of three lead institutions to write a new position paper on the topic. "Many of our universities are urban and do still get a lot of kids who come from first-generation immigrant communities. That's changed a bit, from Irish and Italian to Hispanic and Asian and kids from other kinds of backgrounds. But it is part of our identity and tradition."

In the 39-page paper, paid for by the Ford Foundation and released here on Tuesday, research teams from Fairfield, Loyola University Chicago, and Santa Clara University assess how Jesuit colleges serve immigrant students and what the challenges are in doing so. The researchers also make several recommendations for steps Jesuit colleges can take to standardize the informal approaches many currently take in helping those students.

The paper accompanies a one-page statement, signed by 25 presidents of Jesuit colleges, that sets forth the official position of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities on immigrant students who are in the country illegally.

That statement, which includes a vow "to support our students—both documented citizens and not," and the accompanying paper are not intended to be political manifestoes but moral entreaties, Father von Arx said. He hopes the paper, in particular, will allow educators in the Jesuit community and beyond to understand the challenges that immigrant students confront—and how colleges can take concrete steps to help them.

Immigrant students who are living in the country illegally face a variety of obstacles in getting to college. They are commonly first-generation college students, unfamiliar with the college-application process, and in many cases fear divulging information about their immigration status that may put their families at risk.

They also have few options to pay for college: They are not eligible for federal or state financial aid, and cannot take part in work-study programs. For many, the only way is through scholarships, which are rare (Santa Clara is believed to be the only Jesuit college with a scholarship for such students).

The paper's recommendations include several intended to help Jesuit colleges create clearly defined policies in admissions, financial aid, and student affairs aimed at helping immigrant students get to college and thrive there. Institutions can decide whether to act on the suggestions, said Father von Arx. He hopes they will.

"This is a moral issue," he said, "and colleges and universities should view it that way."

'A Strong Influence'

The Rev. Richard Ryscavage, a professor of sociology at Fairfield University and director of its Center for Faith and Public Life, led the team of researchers on the project. A longtime advocate for immigrants and former national director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Father Ryscavage approached the Ford Foundation two years ago in hopes of getting funds for a different project.

But in his meeting with Ford officials, he said, the talk soon turned to immigrant students. A foundation executive expressed her dismay that private universities—free from the political and financial restrictions that bind many public colleges—were not taking more of a lead in reaching out to immigrant students.

Ford provided a $200,000 grant, and the project began. The thinking behind it, he said, was that if a large number of Jesuit institutions could talk constructively together about how to create best practices for their universities, such a step "could have a strong influence on all of private higher education," Father Ryscavage said.

The paper includes an analysis that is limited in scope, drawing on interviews with 26 immigrant students at six Jesuit colleges, and online survey responses from 110 admissions, student-affairs, and financial-aid officials at all 28 Jesuit institutions. But it is rich in detail.

The students interviewed said that the admissions process had been daunting and that fitting in on a campus felt difficult: Class discussions sometimes took a sharp turn toward immigration policy, for instance, and hallmarks of some campus experiences, like internships and studying abroad, were impossible to consider because of their status.

Some also said that despite wanting to, they wouldn't major in disciplines like education or accounting, or in health-related fields, because all lead to careers that would require certification or background checks, or both. And they said financial support—say, the ability to tackle work-study jobs—along with social and emotional support were what they needed most in college.

Campus officials who participated in the online survey, meanwhile, expressed support for helping such students—but uncertainty about how best to respond to their circumstances.

"I wish there was just a defined process in what we can do [so we can] be more upfront with how these students can get some of this figured out," one said. "Each time it's another conversation, another process ... and this has been going on for years."

Father von Arx acknowledged that. "All of our institutions have been trying to find ways to help," he said. "But many of them have been doing it in something of an ad hoc way. There's a lot of good will, but not a lot of understanding of what other folks have been doing."

The paper recommends that Jesuit colleges:

  • Clearly articulate on their Web sites and elsewhere that they provide access to all students, regardless of their immigration status.
  • Explore the creation of a "common fund" that would pay for scholarships for immigrant students who are in the country illegally.
  • Maintain a list of all scholarships intended for immigrant students.
  • Train admissions staff members on immigrant students' concerns, and modify application forms so that applicants don't have to give Social Security numbers or citizenship status.
  • Create a database of alumni who can help immigrant students with career advice after they graduate.