Multicultural Student Center at Washington State University helps open doors for undocumented student’s

PULLMAN, Wash. - Undocumented students at Washington State University face financial and emotional struggles. 19-year-old Gladiola Banuelos found a community within the Undocumented Initiatives center, and the ASWSU senate is working to compensate students who cannot work.

"It does get to me because I didn't choose to be in this position, but there isn't much I can do," Banuelos said.  

Her family resides in Chelan. Washington, but her birth home in Mexico.

She was only two years old when her parents decided to move from Tecate, Baja, California, to the U.S. Her parents' financial situation has always been a struggle.

Banuelos's dad works construction while her mom does housekeeping, but her and her siblings were never forced to work.

Her father always pushed for education.

"It was hard to see my parents sometimes. Our culture was so different, I felt out of place whenever I would like speak Spanish," Banuelos said. "They always expected us to be the best in school… go to college and be this great person someday." 

According to a 2020 Presidents' Alliance report, about 450,000 undocumented students have enrolled in post-secondary education.

Still, the students face many obstacles that pose severe challenges in their educational pursuits, such as obtaining employment, finding scholarships, and an uncertain future.

Banuelos said some of these hardships, including not being able to work, "has felt unfair sometimes."

She is not alone; undocumented students across the U.S also struggle to secure apartment leases and acquire driver's licenses.

Most forms of government-sponsored financial aid are not available to undocumented students, which causes stress to the student and their parents.  

Programs that help combat these difficulties have been implemented at California State Universities and Washington State University.

The Director of Undocumented Initiative, Marcela Pattinson, has helped establish a community that offers support and emotional openness for undocumented students of all nationalities.

The center located on the fourth floor of the university's Compton Union Building offers financial, educational, and mental health support.

The program addresses challenges undocumented students face, strengthening their chances of completing college and, most importantly, acknowledging embracing all facets of being undocumented.

"If you have equity independent, if you are a student independent, and if you are undocumented or your partner or your boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. This is the space that you can be recognized for being you," Pattinson said.

Although these touching words reflect the center's "hope" atmosphere, many undocumented students struggle to make money as they are not allowed to work. Banuelos is not alone; the federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants who do not hold DACA from working.

The state of Washington offers WASFA, which is state financial aid. Banuelos can pay for school through state aid but has to rely on her parents for groceries and occasional rent when she cannot meet costs. 

"If I wasn't undocumented, I could be working right now and I could be making money and [and be] able to pay for everything by myself," Banuelos said. "Although I do have school paid for, I still rely on my parents sometimes."

ASWSU President Jacob Martinez said, "Both Kiana and I will do our best to get Undocumented students paid. We have seen all the hard work they have done and the time they put into helping students, and we believe they should be getting compensation."

The student senate plans to work with the center and work to figure out a payment for undocumented students on campus. Until then, Banuelos's only source of compensation will come as a stipend earned through the university's "Community, Equity, and Social Justice" mentoring program.

She qualifies for the stipend because it is considered a qualified expense by the Internal Revenue Service.

Next fall Banuelos will mentor incoming first-year students at the African American Student Center.

More About Undocumented Initiatives:

WSU students who seek the support provided by the Undocumented Initiatives Center experience opportunities to obtain information about the university and its financial resources. The center offers multiple programs, including "La Bienvenida," a Spanish-language orientation offered to new WSU Pullman students and their parents. "Mariposas Poderosas" (Fall Semester) and Creative Care (Spring Semester). Both programs focus on resiliency skills and promote self-care. Other opportunities such as consultations, training, and leadership development are provided.