Diversity and Democracy

The Borders of Opportunity: Immigration and Higher Education

As escalating demographic change and deepening economic recession collide, higher education has been caught in a "perfect storm." Institutions are tightening their belts and scrambling to keep their doors open to students from all walks of life. At the same time, the gates may be closing along the borders of our country and along the metaphorical borders between cultural groups as people in straitened circumstances revert to survival mode and "we" becomes "us versus them." Yet even and especially in these challenging times, it is our collective responsibility to be agents of change on behalf of social and economic justice.

We cannot recharge our economy, serve our students, and keep our institutions vital without making equity and diversity central to everything we do. And we certainly cannot rebuild the economy without significant investments in education at all levels and across all cultural communities. We will rebuild the economy and sustain it over the long term only by closing the achievement and opportunity gaps that affect so many young people of color. We will close those gaps only by widening access to higher education for students from all our communities--whether established residents or first-generation immigrants--across all barriers of race, class, ethnicity, gender, disability, national origin, and immigration status.

The Economic and Social Justice Imperatives

Immigrants in our schools, with all their untapped talent and potential, are already at risk. Without serious intervention, they may be among the first to feel the economic and social fallout of a dismal economy. Even before the current recession, the doors to education and economic advancement were closed to many immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, including those whose parents brought them to the United States at an early age and those who labor in unskilled, low-paying jobs with no way out or up. Many sectors of the U.S. economy--agriculture, housing construction, food processing, and hospitality--were built on the backs of these people, most of whom never savored the bounty that was supposed to trickle down from their employers' coffers.

Immigration has transformed not just the American economy, but America culture as well. In the Twin Cities, I see Spanish-language signs and restaurants serving real Mexican food, and I hear the music of the language spoken by my family. I see diverse communities of people coming together for work, recreation, worship, and learning in vibrant neighborhood businesses, parks, playgrounds, churches, and schools. I see local organizations working together to keep these communities economically and culturally vital. And yet, I also see struggle. I see rampant inequalities in education and employment. I see wasted potential as people stuck in low-wage service jobs abandon their dreams of education. I see public schools with shrinking budgets and colleges and universities strapped for funds trying to find ways to serve the changing populations. As the economy worsens, the challenges will only grow greater.

University of Minnesota president Robert Bruininks has said that "a return to a vibrant and growth-oriented economy lies directly through the classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and halls of our great educational institutions" (2009). Immigrants, documented or not, have helped build the economy, and they must be part of its revitalization. If we want them and their children to continue being productive members of our communities, we must make sure they can get a college education. That means supporting their efforts to improve their lives. It means working with K-12 schools and social service agencies and ensuring access to financial aid and scholarships. It means meeting students where they are and working with them and their families. It means respecting their cultural identities and ways of knowing and being. And it means developing inclusive and culturally sensitive curricula and pedagogies that truly engage them in learning.

Supporting the Whole Student

If we want our students to succeed, we can't just consider academic preparation and intellectual abilities. We have to consider and support the whole student--and that includes cultural heritage, identity, family background, and related issues of social and economic justice.

My experience speaks to this need. I grew up in California, which once was Mexico. My ancestors didn't immigrate; their communities were appropriated by an expansionist United States. They were no longer Mexicans, but Mexican Americans, outsiders on their own land. Growing up surrounded by Mexican culture, I took for granted the Mexican identity that would be crucial to my life journey. When I crossed a cultural border and entered graduate school at the University of Iowa, where I was the only Chicana graduate student, I left behind the community that had sustained me. The isolation felt like a kind of exile. One day, as I stared into the abyss that was my new life, the temperature dropped to minus five. I called my parents to tell them I'd be returning home at the end of the semester. I thought they'd tell me to pack my bags. But my mother simply said: "Rusty, where there's one Mexican, there's probably another."

A week later, she sent me a care package containing some of my favorite Mexican foods and cultural icons--including Virgen de Guadalupe and a serape, precious cargo from my culture. I wrapped myself in the serape and inhaled the scent of those foods. I was home. The following day, poring over the 1960 Census in the library, I was astonished to learn that my mother was right. I wasn't alone: Iowa had 29,000 Spanish-speaking people. There was a community out there, and I set out to find it. In time, I would realize the full force of my mother's message: I would succeed only if I believed in myself--and that meant  never forgetting who I was or where I came from. I came to understand how my Mexican identity had shaped and empowered me in the most fundamental ways.

In a culture where assimilation is often still the goal, we must create spaces where anyone can feel safe, where students can be truly who they are and fulfill their potential. A welcoming and supportive campus climate will be key to this success. Our students--including new immigrants whose parents brought them to this country at a young age--need to be able to see themselves and their lives reflected in classrooms and research centers, in residence halls, in the curriculum, behind the podium, and in advising offices. It's up to us, working together, to create the kind of environment that will keep students on track, help them be successful, and send them into the workforce to live good lives and contribute to diverse communities.

Reaffirming Institutional Commitment

To create institutions that embrace all of our students, including the new immigrants on our campuses, we must ask ourselves tough questions: As an institution, and as individuals, do we really believe that diversity is an educational asset? Are we truly committed to change? Are we willing to invest precious resources and affirm different ways of knowing and being? If the answer to any of these questions is no, we're in trouble. If the answers to these questions are affirmative--and I believe they must be--we need to design new models for ensuring that all students have a shot at success in our colleges and universities.

And we must ask these questions in the context of broader issues of social justice: How inclusive a nation are we? Do we really seek "liberty and justice for all"? Where do we draw the lines--and build the fences? On the topic of immigration, this country remains divided. Yet these times require us to deepen our understanding of differences, knowing that our multiple voices address the complexities of the human experience. Educator Henry Giroux said that "democratic societies are noisy. They're about traditions that need to be critically reevaluated by each generation" (1992). I believe that diversity is about democracy; diversity is about equality, change, and social justice. And yes, diversity--and creating change--is about making noise. We'll need to make lots of noise, to continue challenging the status quo, to dismantle systems of exclusion and bias, and to put in their place sustainable systems of access and success to prepare a new generation of change makers for their times.   

These times and these change makers will include new generations of immigrants, people who followed treacherous paths with little more to guide them than a desire for a better life. We can and must smooth the paths they're on now, removing the barriers not only to help individual students and their families, but also to move toward a national consciousness that embraces the richness of culture, history, and contributions new (and earlier) immigrants make to our society. I can only hope that one day the fences will fall, and that the borderlands--whether they are geographic, cultural, or institutional--will no longer be places of resistance, but places of positive exchange and strength. For that to happen, we all need to come together to develop new strategies for addressing the educational needs of changing populations. As higher education professionals, we can play an important role in our transformation from a nation of exclusion to one of inclusion, from a nation of opportunity for some to a nation of opportunity for all, from a nation of privilege based on assumed birthright to a nation of real equality, where we all live and work on a level playing field, not a slippery slope.


Bruininks, R. 2009. Statement from the University of Minnesota, January 16.www1.umn.edu/news/news-releases/2009/UR_RELEASE_MIG_5256.html.

Giroux, H. 1992. Border crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education. London: Routledge.

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