Dominican University, a private Catholic university located in River Forest, Illinois, has been operating since 1901 with an eye toward educating poor and marginalized students, including immigrant students, in the Midwest. Founded by the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters in Wisconsin and later moved to Illinois, the school has an enrollment of about 3,000 students—a small college—but its influence reaches far beyond its campus 10 miles west of downtown Chicago.
Consistently named in the top 20 best colleges in the Midwest and the best value education in Illinois by US News and World Report, Dominican University has earned a stellar reputation as an outstanding institution of higher learning. Perhaps one of the school’s most inspiring achievements, however, is its leadership as an educator of immigrant students, including the undocumented.
About 10 percent of the students at Dominican University are undocumented or have temporary legal status, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. The university not only helps these students with financial support and housing, but also helps them navigate life after school, in terms of helping them obtain legal assistance, if necessary, and employment. Eighty percent of foreign-born students at the school earn their degree.
Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University for 27 years, has placed special emphasis on the university’s outreach to immigrant students and has overseen a growth in the immigrant student population at the school. President Carroll has received several awards for her leadership, including the “Strangers No Longer” award from the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Moral Courage award from Faith in Public Life. She also was named River Forest “villager of the year” in part for her advocacy for undocumented students.
President Carroll acknowledges the challenges immigrant students face in obtaining their education. “Some may not qualify for federal financial assistance, so we have to find other ways to assist them financially,” she stated. “They also need help in integrating into campus life, but are all well qualified academically.” Financial support for undocumented students comes from competitive merit-based scholarships or from donors seeking to specifically support these students.
Because they live in fear of deportation, undocumented students are particularly vulnerable. As such, the university, led by President Carroll, adopted a Sanctuary Campus Covenant in 2017 which pledges to provide safety and security to all students, regardless of their legal status. The Covenant is unique among institutions of higher education, as it promises “accompaniment to those whose freedom and well-being is threatened,” referring to students without legal status.
In 2020, the university updated and strengthened the Covenant, noting the hostile political environment against immigrants: “Our renewed Covenant is crafted in response to new and emerging threats to our community members’ well-being…The Covenant shows our commitment to the education of all, particularly those who reside on the margins of society and need protection,” President Carrol stated.
As an example, Dominican University took several steps to protect immigrant students after the DACA program was ended in 2017. The university reaffirmed its policy to not share student information, including legal status, with authorities, except as required by law and only in the presence of formal documentation. It also assured undocumented students they would still receive grants and institutional scholarships to help cover tuition costs.
In order to protect all members of the campus community, President Carroll also created the President’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which monitors the state of cultural sensitivity and social justice on campus. The university also has in place a system for the investigation of discrimination or harassment claims on campus called One Process, which protects the rights and identity of victims.
The university also fosters a school atmosphere in which immigrant students, including those without legal status, are able to speak out and advocate on behalf of themselves and their fellow students. The campus group “Undocumented and Immigrant Allyance” provides a voice for “all immigrant students (undocumented, immigrant, and refugee) through building community, building partnership within and outside Dominican University, and unapologetically advocating for the rights of all immigrants.” The group has been active in hosting campus events on immigration issues and advocating with policymakers, both in Illinois and in Washington, DC.
President Carroll decries the current political atmosphere against immigrants, who, she says, contribute greatly to the economy and culture of this country: “I am saddened by the messages that immigrants are a threat to us, either to our jobs or our security. They contribute so much to our nation and their stories should be told.”
“Ultimately, the nation needs to reform the immigration system,” according to President Carroll, “so that these talented students can fully realize their dreams.”
Dominican University is a model for other universities, large and small, in how to welcome, protect, and educate immigrant students, so they can take their place as full members of and contributors to US society.