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Dr. Miguel Cardona listened to stories from undocumented students and faculty in a recent virtual meeting. Photo: Getty Images

Sec. Cardona hears from undocumented educators and students, vows to support them amid immigration uncertainty

A common theme of a recent talk with the Education Secretary was support for the Dream and Promise Act.

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U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, who was officially confirmed to his position by the Senate on Monday, March 1, recently heard from several educators who told him about their experiences as DACA recipients.

On Tuesday, April 20, Cardona intently listened to 11 participants on a call share their stories and thoughts on the value of higher education and making it accessible to all, regardless of documentation status.

Cardona is only the second Hispanic man to hold this office, following Lauro Cavazos, who was first appointed under President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

During a pre-Christmas announcement, Biden spoke very highly of the educator, saying that he has a proven track record of being an innovative leader in the fight for all students, and for a “better, fairer, more successful educational system.” 

As the second Hispanic man in this role, and a seasoned educator who has been heavily involved in striving for more equity within education, he took the opportunity very seriously.

As Cardona tuned in to the stories of the educators, he did so with the intent to get a closer look at the pressing issues in the education sector, and to better inform his own advocacy efforts.

Cardona, who was a first generation college student himself, described his intentions and goals as the Secretary of Education. He seeks to address without apology the blatant achievement and opportunity disparities, and ensure that all students have the chance to pursue the gift of higher education. 

“My goal is that I leave with stories to help support our shared mission. … Really paint a picture when I’m advocating on your behalf,” he said.

Some of the participants in the virtual roundtable discussion are teachers and have shared their status with their students, assisting them in navigating their own issues in a society that doesn’t always offer them unobstructed access to the fruits of education and career opportunities. 

All the participants shared their hopes that the recently proposed Dream and Promise Act, which will provide them a pathway to citizenship, will be executed. 

It’s a topic that kept popping up throughout the session concerned the critical role that high school counselors and teachers play in serving undocumented students in their endeavors towards achieving college degrees. 

Marissa Molina, DACA recipient and the Colorado state director for FWD.us (focused on reforming the immigration and criminal justice systems), told the story of how her high school counselor advocated for her every step of the way in her educational journey. 

Molina attributed much of her success to this counselor, who she said is the reason she got into college, “even when there was no DACA, no in-state tuition or financial aid for undcoumented students” in Colorado. 

She then explained how the existence of DACA gave her the freedom to land her first job and also to receive a loan that allowed her to remain in school. 

“In 2014, it allowed me to become the first person in my family to graduate college,” Molina said proudly. 

Upon graduation, Molina became a high school teacher so she could pay it forward for students who may not have someone on their side who can push them to access the resources they need to flourish in their academics and future chosen fields. 

“I wanted to be that champion for young people and create spaces where students knew they belonged and were safe to own their stories,” she said. 

Reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic, Molina discussed the tensions and fears that were worsened for many undocumented students, stating that permanent protections for Dreamers can only be accomplished through Congressional action and legislation.

Astou Thiane, who is now an assistant principal of humanities at Brooklyn middle school, reminisced about the time she burst into tears talking to her friends after a high school counselor informed her that she had no option to attend college. 

“She said it very plainly and very definitively as if this was kind of the law,” Thiane explained. “As an educator reflecting about it, I still get really emotional.” 

Thiane did look into available scholarships, but she was ineligible for most of them. When DACA passed in 2012, she was able to gain employment. 

She attended a City University of New York (CUNY) school, with in-state tuition, paying her way through school by working at a retail job 40 or more hours a week as a full-time student. 

Similar to Molina, Thiane wanted to become a role model and advocate for young students like her who aren’t aware that there is a way forward for them. 

Yadira Garcia Apodaca was only seven years old when her family migrated to the states. She grew up in Phoenix, Arizona.

When AZ Prop 300 was passed, all financial aid was terminated for undocumented individuals, so she lost her merit-based scholariship. 

Determined to push forward, Garcia Apodaca fundraised her way through Arizona State University, graduating with a degree in mathematics education. But it wasn’t until the passage of DACA that the possibility of a teaching career became available to her. She has now been teaching high school students since 2015. 

“We’re here now, but it’s so imperative that we have a permanent solution,” Garcia Apodaca said. 

“There’s a shortage of teachers. Hundreds of teachers graduate each year, but you can’t necessarily use your degree depending on your situation,” she added. 

Cardona concluded the roundtable by sharing his own experiences as an educator. 

“Your stories have strongly influenced me,” he added. “I’m going to take these stories with me. … I’m going to do everything in my power to support you and support students like you. They are the fabric of this country. It’s such an asset when we give all of our students an opportunity to thrive,” he said. 

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