Subtle Support for Undocumented Students in the Classroom

Equity and Diversity Action Committee Member, College of the Canyons

The courage mustered by so many students, let alone undocumented students, to attend classes is not an experience that attendance policies are designed to recognize. Colleges do not have a metric for courage [1], which is likely why the courage on full display by the most vulnerable students just to make it to class is lost on colleges and even on their professors. Attendance is an expectation and the most basic requirement for success in a class. But once students have made it to the classroom, if they make it at all, worries that often concern family, finances, and the law can follow, distract, and fester. After all, students are human. The unique and public, yet still institutionally unrecognized, demonstration of courage by undocumented students who attend classes defies the natural impulse to preserve one’s social anonymity when detainment and deportation are possibilities. [2] An affirmative or well-intentioned acknowledgment of an undocumented student’s status, even in private, can perpetuate rather than relieve the impulse to have one’s status remain as unknown to others as possible. In the public and varied setting of a classroom, professors should do all they can, pedagogically and ever so subtly, to reach undocumented students in an effort to make them at once feel included as part of the class, convey a respect for their instinctive need for self-preservation, and provide them with the learning they seek.

Whereas outside of the classroom a college campus may provide any number of resources to assist undocumented students as a matter of equity, should the students seek out such services, the classroom’s egalitarian setting, in principle, is supposed to offer every student equal access and opportunity. Yet, a classroom’s inherited language and practices can make it an unintentionally threatening environment for undocumented students for whom attention to details, such as linguistic cues, is a necessity for self-preservation. For instance, the use of a term like “illegal,” which may be hard to avoid within certain disciplines, evokes the law, which is a source of anxiety in the lives of undocumented students and their families. It is a term, a signifier, that for undocumented students publicly names the status that their efforts at anonymity attempt to withhold from public view. Therefore, students may feel that even though they themselves have not been personally outed, their status has. This situation does not mean that the subject of law should be avoided, or even can be avoided, in the classroom. In fact, quickly noting the very contingency of law in the United States – the fact that the law is always subject to reform, to change – as a means of offsetting any undue alarm caused by the use of potentially sensitive language such as “detainment,” “deportation,” or “alien” can also convey a reminder of the equally real and hopeful possibility that one’s status is not set in stone. Ultimately, the subtle support of undocumented students in the classroom, support that intends to be inclusive while preserving anonymity, should respect the power of language to both harm and to liberate.

However, supporting undocumented students has to aspire to be more than the avoidance or the strategic disarming of language. The effort must also involve affirmation of the value of the knowledge and skills that undocumented students uniquely possess. Faculty efforts must not only find relevance in this knowledge but must also capitalize on it and appreciate it as essential to the subjects that they teach. When students do not participate in classroom activities, their silence is often interpreted by professors as a sign of disinterest, as something of negative value that contradicts the positive value of voice that society and institutions favor, privilege, and reward. However, silence can be understood more positively, and proactively, as the very means by which one’s precious anonymity is preserved if detection is feared. For undocumented students, silence is understood differently than how it is understood institutionally when social survival is at stake. Silence to undocumented students is an asset, and one – whether faculty realize it or not – that has been essential to any epistemological progress ever made in the history of any discipline.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn explains that during the silent period of normative science that has preceded every scientific revolution, anomalies have emerged – perhaps in the form of questions about unsolved problems – to irritate and challenge the norm to such an extent that eventually the norm is forced, often in spite of great resistance, to become a new model of understanding. A debt is owed, then, to the former anomaly that forced progress. If in the classroom setting the undocumented student’s asset of silence is devalued and regarded almost exclusively as a problem today, this very silence is likely a harbinger of inevitable wisdom for a society in which no one is genuinely heard because everyone is trying to speak. In other words, the undocumented student’s silence is an exhibition of something essential, not merely a tolerated alternative. The undocumented student’s experience must be affirmed and made relevant in such indirect but life-preserving ways in the classroom.


Kuhn, Thomas S. (1996) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press: Chicago

1. Resilience or persistence metrics measure the successful overcoming of obstacles rather than the courage to decide to confront obstacles in the first place.

2. For a review of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Legal Counsel’s interpretation of Assembly Bill 21 and its requirement that districts hold undocumented students harmless, see Dolores Davison’s article “Updates on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Efforts” in the April 2018 Rostrum, available at….