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When I need inspiration, I turn to the 600 undocumented students attending UC Merced

September 8, 2017
Dorothy Leland

Nothing ever inspires me as much as walking around the UC Merced campus and talking to our students. When I’m feeling tired or discouraged, I can always count on them to buoy my spirits with their contagious commitment, determination, motivation and sheer joy for the opportunities that we’ve helped them obtain and realize.

Among our amazing students – the majority of whom are first-generation students from underrepresented backgrounds – are nearly 600 undocumented students. All of our students inspire me, but this group is special.
Like all first-generation students, undocumented students have parents who are always supportive, but not always able to provide the advice and guidance they need. Like all students from low-income families, undocumented students often must work one or more jobs to support themselves and their loved ones.
The situation these students find themselves now – essentially in limbo, waiting to find out what fate Washington will impose upon them – is unfair and cruel. These young people deserve protection, but their ability to remain in the only country they’ve ever known and pursue their dreams is now in question.
The University of California is among the greatest public university systems in the world, and its research enterprise is second to none. At UC Merced alone our faculty and students are seeking better ways to identify and treat cancer, a better system for monitoring and managing California’s water resources, and solar technology that will help move our economy into the future while protecting our planet, to name but a few.
Undocumented students are a significant part of this research enterprise.
Yuriana Aguilar last year became our first undocumented student to earn a Ph.D., studying the human heart’s electrical system in an effort to better predict and prevent its failure. Her potentially life-saving research career has only just begun, and now it’s in jeopardy.
It is impossible to quantify the positive impacts that undocumented immigrants have made, especially here in the San Joaquin Valley. They are our taxpaying, law-abiding friends and neighbors, and they are passionate about working to improve the lives of their families and communities.
Those who come to study at UC Merced and other Valley colleges and universities take those contributions to yet another level. In spite of the constant specter of deportation – which just ratcheted up with the rescission of DACA – they go to class every day, they seek out opportunities to conduct research, they volunteer on campus and in the community, and they set a positive example for all of us to follow.
In many ways, these are our model students. Why would we want to pull them out of our schools and our cities? How could our consciences allow it?
Undocumented students come to UC Merced from all over California. Many are from the Valley, but nearly one in four arrived here from Los Angeles – nearly five hours away from home – in pursuit of a first-rate education and the chance to build a better future. Despite our smaller total enrollment, nearly one in six of all undocumented students in the UC are in Merced.
The decision to end DACA is a grave mistake, but it’s not too late to make things right. There is bipartisan support for legislation that would continue DACA’s protections, and I’ve personally written to many lawmakers in California and leaders in Congress to urge them to set aside their differences and act now to protect our students and their families.
There is a moral imperative on Congress to do what is within their abilities to correct this, and we as a campus will continue to do our part. We pride ourselves on doing our best for those among us who face the greatest needs and challenges, and our undocumented student population is a critical part of our fabric as a university.
We will continue to ensure that these students receive the support, services and education they need, and we will do so with care and compassion for them and their families. For all they have given to us, it is the least we can do for them.
Dorothy Leland is Chancellor of the University of California, Merced; she wrote this for The Merced Sun-Star.
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