Blogpost: Community Colleges: Access Points to the American Dream

By Jon McNaughtan

Earlier this month, the National Forum hosted a two-day event in conjunction with the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education (CCCIE).  Focusing on the importance of integrating immigrant students into American community colleges, multiple discussion sessions addressed critical areas of concern for many of the nation’s community colleges: developing supportive networks for integrating immigrant students in community colleges; promising institutional practices; and current policy relevant to immigrant students.

The initial session led by Teresita Wisell, Associate Dean at Westchester Community College (New York) and Executive Director of CCCIE, and Jill Casner-Lotto, Director of CCCIE, laid the groundwork for the convening.  Stating that there was no natural voice outlining the community college’s role in immigrant education, Dean Wisell discussed the importance of CCCIE in creating coalitions of community colleges across the country that are developing programs to support immigrant students.  The network created by CCCIE includes colleges with supportive policies, successful programs, and diverse demographics.  This consortium of institutions is designed to provide the missing voice that Dean Wisell identified.  In addition, the consortium facilitates sharing promising practices that other community colleges can adopt.

Following Wisell and Casner-Lotto, Erin Howard, Hispanic Outreach Coordinator at Bluegrass Community & Technical College (Kentucky), provided context on the front lines of immigrant education and how a member of the network created by CCCIE has engaged this issue in a promising way.  Howard shared a few of the programs and initiatives she created while at Bluegrass.  Selected practices from Bluegrass included:

  • Training frontline staff on current state and federal policies related to immigrants and undocumented students
  • Organizing community meetings to inform new Americans about current relevant policy and how it impacts their children’s opportunities to attend college
  • Partnering with local universities to create seamless transitions for immigrant students from community colleges into four-year programs
  • Understanding that there is a difference between policy and practice, and working to create positive policies that can mirror good practice

In her role at Bluegrass, Howard supports all students, regardless of race or immigration status.  She is an example of how just one person situated in a college with supportive leadership that is willing to engage and build trust in the community can have a significant impact on immigrant students through education.  She asserted that all of the work she has done has been possible thanks to progressive institutional leaders and active student support organizations.

The final session focused on the current policy environment of immigration reform and was led by Julieta Garibay, Coordinator of United We Dream’s DREAM Educational Empowerment Program and James Hermes, associate Vice President for Government Relation for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).  Julieta began this session by sharing her experience as an undocumented student growing up in Texas.  Her struggle to work through college and graduate with a nursing degree only to face further challenges resulting from her immigration status provided a powerful illustration of the need for reform.  She articulated the issue well when she stated, “Many students grow up not knowing they are undocumented, and when they find out, they are discouraged and lose hope for their future.”  Julieta’s remarks and the discussion led by Hermes ended with the understanding that we cannot let someone’s immigration status become their identity.

There are many students like Julieta who are struggling today to create a better future for themselves and making indispensible contributions to society.  Too many of these young people are impeded by slow political reform and institutional indifference.  There is so much more community colleges can do, and the CCCIE seeks to provide the support and voice for that important work.