Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales’s research has been influenced by the U.S.-Mexico border, Bay Area, and Central Valley. During our discussion, we discussed undocumented students in higher education and the work establishing the Undocu-Ally workshop at the University of San Francisco.
How did you first become interested in research?
My research is rooted in my upbringing and my political engagements around migration, young people, education, and border politics, and more broadly, racial politics in California. I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. I was in high school during an age of violence on the border and violence against migrants. That really shaped my political identity, my personal identity, my racial identity. When I came to graduate school, it only made sense that my research would be in conversation with those pieces of who I am.
What were some of the earlier political moments that shaped your interests?
I grew up in Chula Vista, which is just a few miles from the US-Mexico border. In the mid-90’s, there was a moment of scapegoating against immigrants—Proposition 187 tried to exclude undocumented residents of California from public services like public education and emergency medical services and Operation Gatekeeper developed a stronger, more lethal border fence. The racial undertones of those conversations are very explicit, and I don’t know if you can be a Chicano kid growing up in such close proximity to the US-Mexico border and not be aware of inequality and racism.
When I teach and when I speak, I often tell people that I’m a proud beneficiary of affirmative action, that I was admitted in the last class at UC Berkeley under affirmative action policies. Sometimes people say, “Oh, why are you selling yourself short? Why do you admit to something like that?” For me, it’s really a point of pride. There was something really significant about that moment in California when affirmative action policies were being questioned and ultimately legislated out. I landed on a college campus that was in the midst of major transformation, major social unrest, and student movements. My engagement in that work also shaped my trajectory academically.
How did this translate into your undergraduate and graduate studies?
As an undergraduate, I studied Ethnic Studies, Education, and Chicano Studies, and I found a passion in those disciplines. I ultimately decided to go back to graduate school. My dissertation work was about undocumented migrant students and, specifically, ways in which engagement around the Dream Act catalyzed broader political activism and the development of political consciousness. Now, my work is very interdisciplinary. I am in a School of Education, but I pull very explicitly from Ethnic Studies and Chicano Studies but also Anthropology, Sociology, and other fields.
What specifically pulled you to focus on undocumented students in higher education?
One piece of it was I wanted to look at social movements as a place where education “happens”, and undocumented students were leading the fight at that point. The other part was that I was working for a scholarship program advising underrepresented students of color on the UC Berkeley campus and learned about the unique challenges facing undocumented college students in the context of that work. I was working with these students, and I also had this connection to the ongoing struggles at the border and struggles around racism and xenophobia because of my own background and political work.
What is your current research about?
Currently, I study undocumented community college students in the Central Valley of California. There have been significant legislative changes in California around undocumented students and access to higher education in the last several years. It’s really been the movement of undocumented young people who have made these changes possible. There is this emerging story about California being the national model for service for undocumented students, but I think there’s a danger in telling and propagating that narrative about California as the national model because the reality is that not all students are benefitting from this legislation. I’m talking to undocumented students who qualify for the California Dream Act and are getting significant tuition assistance but who are living in such deep poverty that they can’t afford the bus ticket to school. Or they can’t afford not to work the two hours that they would be in class because their family depends on the wages that would be lost if they went to school instead. If we are actually going to situate California as a national model for servicing and supporting the educational trajectories of undocumented students, then we need to position political economy at the center of that analysis. We need to complicate the conversations around who undocumented students are, what they look like, what kind of work they’re doing, and what kind of barriers they’re confronting.
The access to higher education story is a very specific story within this broader conversation. I think we need to be able to situate it appropriately and connect it to these broader struggles in service of bringing about a more just immigration policy.
What originally drew you to USF?
I wasn’t always positive that I was going to be in academia, but I wanted to be in a place where socially engaged, social justice research was welcomed, and I also wanted to be in a place where teaching was valued. Both of those things led me to USF. When a position opened in Higher Education Student Affairs, I was really excited about it because I had all this practical experience in student affairs and it was in an institutional environment where social justice, racial justice, immigrant rights are things that are talked about explicitly. I have really amazing colleagues that made me feel at home right away.
What work you have done through the USF task force?
When I came to USF, I engaged in conversations on what support for undocumented students looks like here. There were many people on this campus who have been working to support undocumented students for many years but there was a new opportunity to try to coordinate it and bring it to the surface as critical work of the university community. I spoke with Mary Wardell, and she said, “Why don’t you start a task force?” To meet the needs of undocumented students at USF, we need data on how many students we have and what issues they struggle with.” We convened a task force of students, staff, and faculty across campus to collect data from undocumented students, and we made recommendations to the Provost Council about how USF can be a more hospitable environment to undocumented students.
Are you beginning to see some changes or implementations of those recommendations?
I’d like us to not only welcome undocumented students but engage in the broader public discourse and narrative around pushing for more just immigration policy, more comprehensive immigration reform. I also want to have real financial support for undocumented students, which will put the commitment to undocumented students in a structural, institutional grounded way.
There are a couple things that I’m proud of. One is that the task force worked together with the university web services to create a page on the USF website. We worked with the university to create a page on the website that not only has contact people and resources but also makes a very clear statement that says, “As a Jesuit university, we welcome all students.” That public statement of support is not only symbolically important, it’s also really meaningful in terms of student experience on this campus.
Also, last Spring we did an Undocu-Ally workshop. Faculty and staff across the campus could learn how they can serve undocumented students who may come to them whether that’s in the counseling and psychological services, in student advising, or in the classroom. We put out the call inviting people to attend a training that was facilitated by the head of the undocumented programming over at UC Berkeley. Because it was a really busy time of year, we were hoping we’d get 20 people to sign up for the workshop, and we had an overwhelming response from around 50 people and another 15 or 20 who said, “I really want to do this but I can’t make that date.” To me, it signified that there’s really an interest and a need on this campus for that educational work. People want to step up, and the faculty and staff want to integrate this into their work and live up to the mission of the university.