During a recent gathering of regional higher education leaders, keynote speaker and nationally acclaimed poet Yosimar Reyes was asked what he would say to himself as a young undocumented person. His response was quick and simple, “Don’t be afraid,” Reyes said.

Reyes spoke to a virtual welcome gathering organized by the Undocumented Initiatives Program in the Division of Student Affairs. It was attended by over 40 officials from all WSU campuses, the University of Idaho and the University of Washington.

Reyes said the resources showcased at the event, and the people associated with them, would have helped alleviate his fear years ago. Born queer in a poor, undocumented family, the cards were stacked against his success.

“It was a recipe for self-destruction and caused me to grow-up with a lot of shame,” Reyes told the group. “Once I learned that those are my biggest assets, that they help keep me connected to the rest of the world, that’s when everything transformed for me and I began to see them as my sources of power.”

While Reyes never attended WSU, Pattinson said the impact caring people had on him, is the type of impact she and her colleagues strive to make every day with the students they serve. Now that a connection has been made with key people across the WSU system and beyond, they are ready to help others do the same.

A collaborative approach

Recognizing that a valuable resource exists just across the state line, WSU established a unique partnership with the University of Idaho’s (UI) College of Law. It allows students on every WSU campus to access free virtual legal consultations and workshops provided by UI’s Immigration Clinic.

Undocumented Initiatives Ambassador Linda Vargas, a senior majoring in environmental science, spoke about Mariposas Poderosas, a support program for the undocumented community and their allies. Mariposas Poderosas means powerful butterflies. A workbook created for the program by Marcela Pattinson, assistant director for outreach and education and leader of the Undocumented Initiatives Program, and WSU Psychology Professor Paul Kwon, guides students through strategies and conversations that help them build resilience in the face of systemic and everyday challenges. Vargas said it helps students find hope, social support, and ways they can identify and manage their emotions.

Pattinson calls Mariposas Poderosas and its accompanying workbook the first-of-its-kind in higher education and is paving the way for undocumented students to find the kinds of support they need. Sacramento State University and Colorado State University have adopted and purchased the curriculum from WSU. Pattinson’s team offers trainings to help other campuses and institutions implement the program. The trainings can be requested online.

In addition to Mariposas Poderosas, Undocumented Initiatives offers a two-credit class called Crimson Mariposas: Navigating WSU (UNIV 104). Taught by Graduate Assistant Claudia Skinner, it teaches students strategies for navigating higher education, how to set goals, plan for careers, and advocate for their communities.

They are not alone

Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president of Student Affairs, said it was the first-time leaders from across the WSU system met to discuss services for undocumented students, and that this work has never been more critical than it is now.

“I saw very early-on in my tenure that undocumented students at WSU weren’t feeling heard, supported, or engaged,” Gonzales shared with the group. “Whenever we can, we want to make sure they, as well as all of you, have a seat at the table so that your voices can be heard.”

Pattinson said the gathering sent an important message to undocumented students, that no matter where they are across the region, there are people prepared to help them.

“It’s very important that they know they are not alone,” Pattinson said.

Jaime Nolan, associate vice president for community and inclusive excellence, praised attendees for their courage in helping undocumented students amid the current political climate. She said the greatest things we can offer are our vulnerability, authenticity, and empathy.

“This is so important right now because we must repair our damaged sense of shared humanity,” Nolan said. “It is only through empathy and the meaningful connections we make with people that we will create the much-needed change in the world.”