Tuesday, May 28, 2024
HomeOpinionOp-EdsGetting to Know UCI’s DREAM Center: An Interview With Interim Director Dr....

Getting to Know UCI’s DREAM Center: An Interview With Interim Director Dr. Angela Chen

- advertisement -

Photo by Fredy Pedro

EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time of publication, this article said that Dr. Chen was the only professional staff member employed by the UCI Dream Center. This information was correct at the time of writing, but has since changed. This article has been edited to reflect this change.

I am a proud Anteater. I bleed blue and gold and I throw up the “Zot!” sign like nobody’s business. I like to think I know every inch of our campus by heart. (As a skateboarder, I have to know the terrain well enough to avoid the bumps and potholes which stand between me and a trip to the emergency room.) But as much as I may think I know about UCI, every so often I encounter spaces that challenge this familiarity — spaces that serve a vital purpose on campus and make our entire Anteater community better. 

UCI’s DREAM Center is one of these spaces. Tucked behind the FRESH Basic Needs Hub at the end of Lot 5 in Mesa Court, the center serves as a resource for individuals impacted by immigration policy, including undocumented students. There resides Dr. Angela Chen, Interim Director of UCI’s DREAM Center, who truly knows the significance of having such a space on campus. 

Chen’s experience as a formerly undocumented student has largely informed her career-long commitment to serving the undocumented community. An Anteater alumna, Chen is nearing her one year anniversary of being at UCI post graduation, this time as an employee. Chen transitioned to this role from Assistant Director due to the recent resignation of former Director Oscar Teran. 

Chen is in charge of the center’s operations and programming and student and campus support. She also serves as a community liaison. Chen is supported by Faculty in Residence Dr. Laura Enriquez who instrumentally assists in the center’s programming, funding, and operations. The center is also staffed by student management consisting of five undergraduate students and two graduate students, and there are plans to bring on four more graduate mentors. 

The center does not have a master list of undocumented students. Instead, it strives to promote its services to all students regardless of the extent to which they are impacted by immigration policy. Last year, there were 1,260 DREAM Center event participants and 359 peer-to-peer consultations. 

“We try to get the information out right at student orientation. A big part of it is recruiting [these students] into the first-year program,” Chen said. “We also use letters, social media [and] word-of-mouth, but a big part of why students come into our center is for the programs we do.”

These programs provide students with academic support, professional development and social support avenues. They include one-on-one academic consultations with professional staff, mentorship through Scholars in Residence and empowerment through the student-led organization Students Advocating For Immigrant Rights and Equity (SAFIRE). Students often come to the center with questions about how to fill out Financial Aid forms or handle uncertainties within their academic department. Legal consultations through UC Immigrant Legal Services are also made available to students.

While the DREAM Center does offer formal resources for students seeking academic and legal counseling, Chen emphasizes that the center is not a purely transactional space. 

“We really do value this space as a communal space. It’s not like other spaces on campus where you come in to get something and you leave. We really hope students are hanging out and enjoying themselves,” Chen said.

 Photo by: Laura Enriquez

When Chen was an undergraduate student at UCI, she struggled to find accessible spaces for herself as an undocumented student. Without documentation, Chen was unable to study abroad, access campus career resources or apply to internships. This lack of available experiences led her to discover what her undocumented status truly meant.

After graduation, Chen’s main research question was centered around how universities can support undocumented students. When Chen was an undergraduate student at UCI, there was no AB540, no California DREAM Act and no DACA. All these policies support undocumented students in varying capacities. When AB540 was first introduced, there were a couple hundred undocumented students across the UC campuses. Today, there are over 75,000 undocumented college students in California.

“To me, that’s a tremendous change,” Chen said. “It’s also changing very quickly, which means that the institution has to also match the needs of those students. It’s still tough for a lot of campuses to adequately support all of these students.”

Photos by Katie Freiberg

Chen cautions me against believing in a cookie-cutter model for what a center for undocumented students should look like. Prior to working at UCI, Chen served as the first director of the undocumented student program at UCLA. When she came to UCI, she received a lot of questions about what UCLA is doing and how UCI should follow suit. 

“I was really hesitant to do that because I’m a proud Anteater and I always feel like Anteaters have so much to offer,” Chen said. “We need to find those things that are wonderful about this campus and build around that rather than take an external model and feel like it has to fit here on campus.”

Funding is currently the largest barrier to optimal functioning of DREAM centers across the UC system. UC President Janet Napolitano is resigning at the end of this year and UC systemwide funding for these centers are projected to go down in the next two years. Campuses will likely have to absorb some of these DREAM centers’ expenses if centers are to remain functional.

“This is a really important space on campus and I know that our Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Deans and our leadership all really value this space, so I envision they all want to see [it] continue to be successful and grow,” Chen said.

Even with the seed money currently afforded to the center, the undocumented students it serves still have large gaps in the financial aid they receive. Even if these students receive maximum state and institutional aid, they do not qualify for any federal aid. Depending on the year, the financial aid gap can range from $7,000 to $9,000. The DREAM Center recently awarded $100,000 in scholarships to students, but almost all of the 80+ applicants still had a $9,000 financial aid deficit. 

“These students have to make up for that by saving money and working, and if they don’t have their employment authorization sometimes they’re leaving school, dropping out or taking a reduced course load,” Chen said. “There’s quite a tremendous need, and if you have $9,000 lacking in financial aid per student, and we have 700 students here … What’s the math on that?” 

The math adds up to $6.3 million in tuition money being lacked. There are clauses in the Promise Act and the DREAM Act which would open up federal aid to undocumented students, but so far none have passed into law. Unless policy changes at the federal level, the DREAM center will continue to rely on state and institutional funding. 

The DREAM Center is a safe space that does not exist secretly, nor does it exist quietly. Even so, it always helps to spread awareness of the counseling services and friendly faces students can find in it. Chen understands that some people might feel intimidated to come into the center, but suggests that anyone and everyone is welcome at the DREAM center, with or without explanation.

For Chen, being American is about more than just waving a flag. When I ask her what it means to be an American, she pauses for a moment. Looking up at me with a soft smile and the confidence of a person speaking from the heart she tells me, “It’s that desire. I’m invested here, and I think all of our students, they’re invested. They want to see this community and country do better.”

Katie Freiberg is a third year Criminology, Law and Society major. She can be reached at kfreiber@uci.edu.