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December 4, 2020

A Woman's Lifelong Compassion Serving Immigrant Students

One student says the DREAMers Center gives her a sense of belonging and that she really feels how much the people and teachers there want her to succeed.


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By Virginia Myers

Identifying with a Dream

When Luz Maciel de Villarroel was 12 years old, she moved to the United States from Guadalajara, Jalisco, in Mexico. The next year she and her parents and sister drove back to visit family, passing acres and acres of farm fields in California where they saw families like their own, young children included, under terrible working conditions, bent over picking vegetables in the hot sun. She was horrified.

“I want to help those families,” she told her mother. “I want to teach immigrant children.”

And so she did. Since that road trip in the early 1960s, Villarroel has spent her life teaching in migrant camp summer schools, teaching high school Spanish, developing ethnic and cultural centers at Oregon State University, focusing her Ph.D. in counseling on self-esteem and cultural identity among Mexican/Chicano students, and guiding Spanish speakers through GED programs.

“This population is so resilient.”

Today, she is a member of the Portland Community College Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals and the coordinator of the DREAMers Resource Center at Portland Community College in Oregon, where she helps undocumented students and students with DACA.

At age 70, she says, the work still inspires her. She learns as much from her students as they do from her, about humility and perseverance. “This population is so resilient,” she says.

They have to be. Villarroel works with new immigrants, refugees and so many undocumented students and says that, despite constant challenges, she is continually moved by how committed they are to their education, their families and their communities. “Some of them have two or three jobs, plus take care of siblings,” she says. “Their challenges are incredible.” Yet they continue with work, classes and family responsibilities, often adding in activism to protect DACA and preserve immigrant rights.

The DREAMers Center

That is exactly the work of the DREAMers Center, one of 30 centers on college campuses across the country and the only one in Oregon. In this “safe space” in a modest building on the Rock Creek campus (and virtually during the pandemic), immigrant students — who typically do not qualify for financial aid — can get the funding they need to stay in school.

dreamers center
The inside of a DREAMers Center

They receive legal advice regarding their immigration status, help filling out DACA paperwork, assistance selecting their class schedules and counseling for their careers. They can get emergency funding and tuition remission, attend workshops or just hang out and eat pan dulce with people who share their culture. And they can relax with Villarroel, whose compassion for her students helps keep them on track.

“They need hand-holding and they need encouragement,” she says. “They need assurance.”

As the the counting of presidential election ballots continues and the status of immigrants in this country rides on the outcome — in particular, the fate of DREAMers and DACA recipients is on the line, with Donald Trump having tried to cancel the DACA program and Joe Biden supporting it — Villarroel says students are worried about a host of issues right now. The biggest one is fear of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the government agency that rounds up immigrants for deportation. Of course the status of the DACA program is heavy on their minds.

"Many students have harrowing stories of crossing the border and have already been traumatized."

In a state with a long history of Ku Klux Klan activity and that is also known to be home to white supremacists, students are also afraid of hate crime, and are constantly on the lookout, “especially if they get a lot of questions about where they are from,” says Villarroel. Many students have harrowing stories of crossing the border and have already been traumatized. The DREAMers Center tries to educate the rest of campus about how questions about “where you’re from” can be stressful for immigrant students, who are likely to go back “in the shadows” if they are afraid that ICE will come in and swoop them away.

Money is another worry: “Most of our students are supporting their families with only their income,” says Villarroel. “If they lose their jobs, the whole family goes.” This year has been particularly difficult. During the pandemic, undocumented immigrants got no stimulus checks, regardless of need. Latinx people are contracting the virus at nearly three times the rate of white people; they often work frontline jobs and live in crowded housing conditions with families of six and seven in two-bedroom apartments, putting them at greater risk, says Villarroel.

“After the first week of the pandemic, I started getting emails,” she says. “My whole family is infected,” her students wrote. “We don’t know what to do.” The DREAMers Center handed out food bags and gift cards and focused on more fundraising.

Luz Maciel de Villarroel

With all of these challenges, can the center really make a difference? On the one hand, says Villarroel, “You never really know if you made a difference or not.” On the other, students come back with success stories. One young student was about to give up when Villarroel gently urged her to apply for a DREAMer scholarship. “Just give it a chance,” she told her. She helped the student renew her DACA status and apply for the scholarship.

Now the young woman is successfully enrolled and on track for her associate’s degree in spring 2022; she gave the keynote speech at a recent fundraiser for the center.

Those are the stories Villarroel lives for, and they happen again and again. One student says the DREAMers Center gives her a sense of belonging. Another says she really feels how much the people and teachers there want her to succeed.

Villarroel tells center supporters, “You have changed lives.” But of course Villarroel, with her compassion and heart, is doing that as well — one student at a time.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

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