CUNY’s First Ever Immigrant Student Success Center Housed in John Jay

Nanci Avalos Omaña

CUNY now counts with its first-ever Immigrant Student Success Center and it’s housed right here in John Jay on floor L2, right next to the office of Student Council.

What started off as an idea after a series of unfortunate events in the world of politics, is now a dream come true to many immigrant, DACAmented and undocumented students.

“The Immigrant Student Success Center is an amazing addition to the John Jay community, especially to the undocumented students,” said Jaclyn Trentacosti, John Jay Dreamers Club Secretary. “This Center not only provides scholarships for these students but establishes a home and provides them with what steps they can take outside of college that can help them strive for success.”

The Center’s mission is to “empower undocumented, DACA, TPS, and immigrant students at John Jay to succeed, graduate, and thrive” by offering a number of different services.

The services the Center offers include information through a newsletter, mentoring, advocacy, and educational, financial, and legal resources.

Jersoon García, senior and DACAmented student has already taken advantage of some of those resources and has also received help in another special way.

García wanted to be a police officer, however, because of his status that dream became unattainable. Thanks to the Center he found his way again.

The Center created a program to discuss alternative ways to NYPD for all those students who want to become police officers but can’t because of their immigration status.

“It just means that people care,” García said. “It’s a stepping stone towards moving in the right direction.”

The Center has also helped out another undocumented student, Andres Portoviejo, who sought out help in finding internship opportunities for the summer.

“It’s an opportunity and a chance to be who I want to be in life,” Portoviejo said on what the center means to him. “It’s a place where I can go for emotional support, scholarships, and other support.”

The idea to create a center to cater to immigrant students started with the undocumented student population at John Jay.

In 2015, Dr. Isabel Martinez, professor in the Department of Latin American and Latina/o Studies met a student who was a recipient of the TheDream.US Scholarship, a scholarship specifically for those who hold the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Upon discovering this, Dr. Martinez wondered how many other undocumented students there were on campus and what exactly was John Jay doing to support them.

From there, she reached out to Kate Szur, Senior Director of Student Academic Success Programs and Nancy Yang, Associate Director for Student Success Initiatives.

Together they formed the dream team. They started by creating a resource page for undocumented students on the John Jay website and with knowledge about the scholarship, they identified the TheDream.US scholars and paired them with mentors.

However, according to Dr. Martinez, it wasn’t until after the 2016 presidential election that things accelerated from there.

“There was a discussion to raise money to hire somebody, not necessarily a center but just to hire somebody,” said Dr. Martinez on the possibility of having a support system for undocumented students on campus.

The dream team started plotting and among their planning, there were two dominant conversations – safety on campus and financial support.

With that in mind, they created a proposal for a “full-time Immigrant Student Support Coordinator and Success Coach” in order to “continue providing the support and resources to undocumented students, students from mixed-status families, and other immigrant students.”

In the proposal, obtained by the Sentinel, the Department of Latin American and Latina/o Studies (LLS) and Student Academic Success Programs (SASP), as a rationale for why a coordinator was needed, included that “approximately 33% of the John Jay student population is foreign-born, with a considerable number of unidentified students who are either undocumented or are U.S citizens with at least one foreign-born and/or undocumented parent.”

John Jay’s Hispanic student involvement is at least 25% which makes the college a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI).

The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities defines Hispanic-Serving Institutions as “colleges, universities, or systems/districts where total Hispanic enrollment constitutes a minimum of 25% of the total enrollment.” Total enrollment includes both full-time and part-time students.

In March 2017 the proposal was sent to John Jay’s Development Office. In Fall 2017, John Jay receives a new college president – Karol V. Mason. After the Fall semester started, on September 5, 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA was being rescinded.

On where the proposal was heading after all that happened in a short period of time, Dr. Martinez said, “Development was not really doing anything about it and then Mason comes on board and the DACA stuff happens and then it accelerates even more.”

After DACA was rescinded, an emergency meeting was held for all affected students. President Mason and Vice President for Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, Laura Ginns, joined them.

“Their presence alone was reassuring, but President Mason, in particular, made it clear that she cared deeply for all of the students in the room and all the DACAmented and undocumented students across the campus,” said Nancy Yang, Associate Director for Student Success Initiatives.

According to both Dr. Martinez and Yang, President Mason and VP Ginns mobilized everything so that the proposal for a center became a reality as early as it did.

“I’ve said this before, I think Karol being here, I think she really moved this along and Laura Ginns took the proposal and made it official,” Dr. Martinez said.

“The “ball” was rolling on the Center when President Karol Mason and VP Laura Ginns joined the John Jay community,” Yang said. “I’m not sure it would have happened without them.”

The Immigrant Student Success Center is now a dream come true to the faculty who helped create it and especially to the students who the Center was created for.

“I feel so many things – thrilled and relieved that our students will have a person and a center that they deserve and pride that I work at an institution that supports our immigrant and undocumented students,” Yang said.

The person who runs the Center was once undocumented herself. Now, Cynthia Nayeli Carvajal serves as the Success Manager for undocumented students in CUNY’s first-ever Immigrant Student Success Center.

Growing up undocumented in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles shaped her and made her aware of the different types of problems that present-day undocumented students face today.

When she applied for the Success manager position at John Jay, Carvajal was intrigued by the “School of Criminal Justice” part and described the campus as one she wanted to be a part of.

“It is beautiful to see a campus that is majority students of color, ⅓ immigrant, and with staff that are so passionate to support and advocate with them,” Carvajal said. “The students that I want to work with want to be immigration lawyers, public administrators, journalists, academics, and work in the police force.”

“These eclectic professions and the interaction between students who aspire to be in those spaces make this campus even more diverse and unique,” she said.

Carvajal was chosen by the students for the students in a long hiring process. The Center’s Success Manager position received over 150 applicants.

Jacqueline Aguilar, USS Delegate in Student Council and Vice President of the Socially Awkward Club, was part of the student committee in charge of choosing the right person for the job.

“It was something I took very seriously and something I took to heart because I knew how important it is to have a space for DACAmented, undocumented, and immigrants of all types of statuses that need that additional help,” Aguilar said.

One of the most important qualities that students on the committee were looking for was an experiential understanding of being undocumented.

“When we interviewed Cynthia, it was a complete game changer because she came in with a well understanding of what it means to be undocumented and what it means to be surrounded by undocumented family, friends,” Aguilar said.

“I mean we already had a lot of support from the LLS Department, but now I feel that Cynthia is able to now concentrate on helping us more,” said Jersoon García, DACAmented student.

When it comes to her future in the Center, however, Carvajal is working on not becoming too attached.

“I think the Center needs to function without me, and the next, well, this director should have been it, the next one has to be someone who’s undocumented,” she said. “Even if I can connect with it in this capacity, the next person has to be undocumented.”

According to Richard Relkin, John Jay’s Director of Media Relations, John Jay’s priorities for the Center were to find a space, hire a director, and open the center.

“Through the generosity of private donations as well as funds from student government we were able to accomplish all three goals,” he wrote in an email.

As for the future of the Center, he wrote, ”As we continue to raise money for the Center, our goals include adding a peer mentoring program, internship opportunities, additional workshops, and increased educational resources on how to be an ally as well as services for the wider immigrant community.”

Other CUNY colleges have contacted Dr. Isabel Martinez inquiring about the Center and asking for help to accomplish the same thing on their campuses.

“This is the first center like this in NYC so other people are putting proposals together and trying to figure out what we did,” Dr. Martinez said.

“This center could not have been possible without help from faculty and staff and most importantly students,” said Karina Davila, John Jay Dreamers Club President. “Students are the ones that can make a positive difference on campus and I hope to keep seeing these type of changes everywhere.”

Marcy Ray, an undocumented student whose name was changed to respect her wishes of anonymity due to her status, believes the Center symbolizes the start of a new era.

“Immigrants have been underrepresented or misrepresented for far too long and our generation will change that,” she said. “This Center is just the foundation for the new America that will be built.”