Blogpost: Making sense of undocumented student access by Dan Parrish, C.S.C.

Dan-Parrish-CSCWhenever I return home to my Holy Cross community at Notre Dame, someone inevitably asks that most fateful of questions, “So, when are you going to finish this degree?!” Actually, many of my brothers ask that question, sometimes even those whom I have chastised in the past for committing this egregious sin of putting a doctoral student on the spot. On one hand, “all publicity is good publicity,” in the sense that they wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t feel my absence and want me to return home and get to work. I can certainly appreciate that sentiment. But you’re never supposed to ask the “when are you finishing” question to a doctoral student—trust me, we already feel bad enough about how long it is taking and we don’t need more guilt added to the heap.

What is happening in these brief exchanges is a very simple sort of sensemaking—my brothers are trying to reconcile the number of years I have been away, the average time to degree, my perceived ability, and my potential contributions upon the completion of this time in studies. Sensemaking is a framework for understanding the world around us. Weick (2008) claims that, “To focus on sensemaking in organizational settings is to portray organizing as the experience of being thrown into an ongoing, unknowable, unpredictable streaming of experience in search of answers to the question, ‘What’s the story?’” (para. 1). In other words, we look at the various cues in our environments, weigh them against the context we find ourselves in, temper them against our past experiences, filter them through our own sense of personal identity, and try to order what we are sensing in some sort of narrative form. Usually this process ends with us being able to recount what we have experienced in some sort of brief story, even if it is a simple story, such as: “I saw Dan the other day and he is almost done with his studies. He should be coming home before long. (He seemed, however, strangely put off when I repeatedly asked what was taking so long. . .)”

After several years of dodging questions about my progress in studies, I finally have good news to share and don’t so much mind the inquiries: I am working on my dissertation, and it is really interesting stuff (if I do say so myself!) I am studying the sensemaking of leaders in Catholic universities around undocumented student access. If you have been paying any attention to the news this year you know that we are hearing calls for comprehensive immigration reform from all sides—from the left and the right, from the religious and the non-religious, from within higher education and from the broader society. So it is a very interesting time to study an issue that, as of yet, remains unsettled. Reports estimate that there are one million undocumented children living in the U.S. (Passel & Cohn, 2011). As educators, what is our responsibility (if any) to reach out to these individuals?

Well, in classic academic fashion, while I have chosen this issue to frame my study, I am not actually examining institutional policy or practice. Instead, I am interested in sticking with Weick’s thinking and better understanding how key leaders make sense of the issue, how they figure out “What’s the story here?” In my qualitative study I have been asking presidents and provosts, vice presidents of mission and enrollment management, and directors of admissions and financial aid how they are making sense of undocumented student access. And their responses have been fascinating on a number of levels. My research is only just beginning, so it would be irresponsible to say too much about what I am seeing. But this blogpost would be pretty boring if I didn’t include at least a few nuggets from the field. Here are a few interesting tidbits from the early research thus far:

Leader identity filters action: There is a difference between what leaders may believe personally and what they feel their positions as university leaders asks of them. While they may hold clear personal positions on the issue of undocumented students, they are very sensitive to what they say and do when acting as leaders and representatives of their institutions. This is not necessarily surprising, but it is interesting to hear university leaders reflect on this tension between what they believe and what they feel they can (or should) say and do as a professional.

Catholic values have a clear and powerful impact: The magisterium (teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church) has thus far made no specific recommendations on immigration reform or undocumented student access. The church has, however, made numerous pronouncements about care for immigrants and guests, about a “preferential option for the poor,” and about general principles of social justice. One of the reasons I chose to situate my study in Catholic higher education is because I anticipated that these Catholic values would have an impact on leader sensemaking. That hypothesis is already being confirmed—leaders are reflecting on the powerful ways in which they feel compelled to act in certain ways because of the Catholic character of their institutions. I have personally found it very edifying to listen to stories of conversion and challenge as leaders strive to practice what they preach: higher education infused with Gospel values and oriented towards preparing “citizens for heaven” (Moreau, 1856/2006, p. 25).

Stories are powerful tools for organizing our experience: It is interesting to hear interviewees spontaneously use narrative forms to answer questions which do not specifically merit narrative responses. Bruner (1990) has done some interesting work on the functioning of narrative, examining, for instance, the development of language in young children. He identifies four components of narrative: agentivity, sequentiality, canonicity, and perspective (p. 77). Bruner argues that as children struggle to become verbal, they are engaging in an embodied form of sensemaking, and it is essentially narrative in character. In other words, children make sense of the world by identifying stories and they learn to speak so that they can begin engaging their culture and environment personally. This is all to say that stories are very important to the ways we understand the world around us. It has been a pleasure to hear numerous stories of educators and leaders reaching out to these poorest among us—the undocumented who don’t even have a country to call home—not only because it is inspiring but because it confirms the role of story in the way we make sense of the world around us.

It will be interesting to see where the rest of my research takes me and what new lessons I learn. And it will be even more interesting to follow the next chapters of our country’s struggle with immigration reform and see what story we end up telling about the undocumented who so yearn to pursue higher education alongside us.



Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Moreau C.S.C., B. A. (1856/2006). Christian education. Austin, TX: The Holy Cross Institute at St. Edward’s University.

Passel, J. S., & Cohn, D. (2011). Unauthorized immigrant population: National and state trends, 2010. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Weick, K. E. (2008). Sensemaking. In S. R. Clegg & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), International encyclopedia of organization studies (pp. 1404-1407). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.