Dominican University is unique among Catholic colleges for its commitment to immigrants. About 10 percent of the students at Dominican University are undocumented or have temporary legal status, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. This episode features an interview with Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University. She reflects on the challenges facing undocumented college students, including: lack of federal financial aid funding, the difficulty of career planning, and integrating into campus life. She also talks about the leadership of undocumented and “DACAmented” students and why the university adopted a Sanctuary Campus Covenant in 2017. Carroll describes the university’s efforts to support immigrant students during the “triple pandemics” of COVID-19, racism, and economic injustice — all of which have been exacerbated by restrictionist immigration policies.
Emma Winters: Welcome to CMSOnAir, the podcast on migration and refugee issues, brought to you by the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). I’m Emma Winters, CMS’s Communications Coordinator. This is the fourth episode of a series, “Accompanying Immigrants in the COVID-19 Era: How Catholic Ministries Are Transforming Successful Programs.” In this episode, you will hear about Dominican University, a Catholic higher education institution with a special commitment to immigrants. Here to share the university’s history as an immigrant-serving institution, why the university adopted a Sanctuary Campus Covenant, and the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, and restrictionist immigration policies is Donna Carroll, the President of Dominican University. Donna Carroll has led Dominican University for 27 years and been honored with numerous awards for her work with immigrant students, including the “Strangers No Longer” Award from the Archdiocese of Chicago and the “Moral Courage” Award from Faith in Public Life. She spoke with Kevin Appleby in August and at the Center for Migration Studies’ Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference in October. Here’s CMS’s conversation with Donna Carroll.
Kevin Appleby: Thank you everyone for joining the Center for Migration Studies’ podcast today. Today we have a special guest, President Donna Carroll of Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. In your tenure, the size of the university has grown and has received great recognition as a top college in the midwest. A lot of that is due to your efforts, but attendant to the topic we have today, you have been recognized as a leader in reaching out to immigrant students, immigrant populations, educating them, forming them, and integrating them into US society. We are grateful to have you here and to have your experience to tell us a little bit about what Dominican has done in the past in regard to immigrant students, what you are doing currently, and what your vision is with regard to immigrant students, including undocumented students. Welcome, President Carroll. The first question I have for you is, could you give us a little history of Dominican? I’m sure I did not represent it comprehensively, especially as it relates to foreign-born students, your outreach to them, and welcoming them to Dominican.
Donna Carroll: I’d be delighted to do that. Thank you for inviting me. This is a topic, about which I feel deeply, so I’m always delighted to have these conversations and to try to move this agenda forward in a responsible way, particularly in this climate and at this time.
Dominican, formerly Rosary College, formerly Saint Clara College, formerly Saint Clara Academy, really traces its roots back to the service of immigrant communities. Once upon a time, in its original location in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, that immigrant community were the Irish coal miners of the upper midwest. And Samuel Mazzuchelli, who was the founding father of the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation, was deeply committed to providing education for women and men in that community, and was very conscious of the cultural context for that education. In fact, in addition to working with the lead miners, he also worked with the Native Americans in that area and insisted that the education be provided to them in their own language. He was one of the early pioneers of what we today call language access. Dominican stands on the shoulders of some great pioneering educators, relative to first-generation to college immigrant communities.
That has been our history, no matter the location and no matter the time. The student profile has changed. We were Irish lead miners. When I first arrived at Rosary College in 1994, our immigrant community was substantially Polish families and Italian families. As the demographic of Chicago has changed, as we see migration south and west, the west side of Chicago has seen enormous growth in our Latinx families and communities. I like to think of Dominican University as having a multicultural identity that is currently aligned with the Latinx profile. So there is a long history of being responsive to immigrant communities. We have been an HSI, Hispanic Serving Institution, since 2011. We are currently 50 percent first-generation to college undergraduates, 50 percent Latinx students, and 50 percent Pell-eligible students. We are proud of our strong social mobility index, and the high graduation rates for first-generation to college, students of lower-income, often students of color, and a variety of immigrant backgrounds.
Kevin: Thank you. That’s helpful history. Let’s fast forward a little bit to the current day. I was interested in seeing that you have a Sanctuary Campus Covenant which strikes me as very unique among colleges and universities. Could you explain what the Sanctuary Campus Covenant is and how that plays out at Dominican?
Donna: Absolutely. We actually have two Sanctuary Campus documents that direct policy and many of our programs and outreach. It’s interesting that we are talking about it now because these documents bookend this political chapter. Dominican has been a strong advocate for undocumented students for many, many years. So in 2016, with all the challenges to DACA and the concerns of deportation and the general feeling of attack and disenfranchisement that many of our immigrant families, particularly our undocumented students, felt at that point, the university was really looking to make a strong statement of support. So in 2016, we introduced what we called our “Sanctuary Campus Resolution.” What was particularly important about the document was not only the content but also the process. It was recommended through our climate [of Diversity,] Equity, and Inclusion Committee. It was both approved by the staff assembly and the faculty senate, and it made its way up to a formal board resolution. The entire campus community made a strong public commitment to be a place of welcome, a place of safety, a place of belonging for all marginalized students but in particular those undocumented students who were struggling so valiantly at that point.
That initial resolution became the umbrella for the great deal of the work the institution has done since then, resulting in what we recently passed, which we called our “Campus Sanctuary Covenant.” [That document] reflects a greater understanding of the systemic issues around marginalized student groups. It expands our public statement of commitment to the moment and the time. It’s a stronger anti-racism statement in general. There is a greater critical consciousness in this document and a stronger commitment to collective action. It aligns with our strategic plan, which is titled “A World of Difference,” and it has much more specificity on how we address recruitment policy, faculty training, and development in what continues to be a very challenging time, not only for undocumented students but for students and families across many identities and issues.
Kevin: Thank you. I encourage our listeners to go to the website and to look up the Sanctuary Campus Covenant. You made reference to some of the challenges marginalized students may face. Could you talk a little bit about some of the challenges foreign-born students, immigrant students, students who are otherwise marginalized might face in obtaining their education? What does Dominican University do to help them meet those challenges? Often we don’t think about what the challenges are for those who are in a more vulnerable position than the rest of us may be and how some of those challenges can be daunting. Anything you can share about the university’s response to the unique experience of immigrant students, the unique realities they face, as they attempt to get their education?
Donna: Well, I should start by saying that it’s a humbling challenge for all of us and the answers are evolving. Some we can control, shape and change, and others are poignant because they are outside of our control. I would group it in a number of different buckets. The financial and policy obstacles to successfully completing a college degree are significant.
I think one of the places that Dominican makes an enormous contribution very tangibly is financially. We know that most of our undocumented students don’t have access to the federal dollars, be that grants or loans, that other students do. One of the things that we try to do is make it financially possible for students not only to attend but to persist to graduation. But the challenge is so much bigger. Undocumented students face so many family pressures. There are so many quiet biases in terms of COVID-19 right now. Health care for undocumented students is an enormous challenge and one that is easily compromised by the fact that many families don’t want to step forward and expose their status in order to get health care. So challenges that we might imagine are complex for us already are often much more complex for an undocumented student.
Then you have all those other cultural and environmental challenges. These days we are describing it very often as a hierarchy of values. In many cases and many communities, first-generation college students and students of color feel that they are valued less, that their experiences are perceived as less worthy. Their opportunities are narrowed by history and experience. And one of the things that Dominican tries to do – imperfectly and always striving – is to create a sense of belonging and to let our students know that they are assets not only for the institution but once they graduate, for this changing, interdependent, global world. They are not charity to the institution. In fact, the reverse is true. Their contribution, their determination, their sense of purpose, their commitment to family and community are characteristics that strengthen the Dominican community at large and enrich our experience.
We work very hard to value the heritage, talents, and possibilities of all our students, and create an environment where they feel not only welcomed but challenged and where they feel there are real opportunities. We try to be very practical, to understand the law and policies and where there are limits for undocumented students and how we advise them on careers and opportunities, so we are not just adding to their frustration but helping them bridge to very real opportunities. We talk to them about where there are risks. You go through in many cases, a nursing program, a medical studies program. Can you sit for credentialing? In some states, yes. In other states, sometimes now but not before or maybe not tomorrow. We have to be encouraging but practical, supportive without being disingenuous about the challenges, and always – I like to think – with a sense of hope.
One of the most challenging elements, particularly for undocumented students is how long this limbo has persisted, and how for every two steps forward, there is a step back. How do you retain resilience when progress is not linear and always forward-moving? We try to be encouraging, caring, and vocal in our advocacy. I think one of the reasons that we see so many undocumented students at Dominican is because we speak up on their behalf. We accompany them through their journey, and we value who they are and what they might contribute.
Kevin: Thank you for that. If you don’t mind, I wanted to ask you about your DACA students. I know the American public is more educated on immigration because of the DACA students, and they are in a precarious situation legally, depending on the whim of our political leaders. Could you talk a little about how many DACA students you may have? What special challenges are they facing?
Donna: About 10 percent of Dominican’s undergraduate student body is undocumented, and most of those students are DACA students. This is not only an extensive commitment for the institution, but we have a critical mass. That critical mass creates a sense of community and creates a sense of persistence. That’s important.
The question that people don’t usually ask me though, and I think it’s the more important numbers question, is: How many undocumented or “DACAmented” students apply to Dominican that we can’t accept because of some of the financial constraints. I was asking our admissions director that the other day. This year we will have 40 to 50 new freshmen, DACA or undocumented students. We probably had 300 to 350 qualified undocumented students apply. He felt, if money was no object, we would have had two or three times the number of students we have. But we simply [could not afford] to adequately fund more than those 40-50 students who are joining us. It’s about 10 percent of our undergraduate students. If there were other colleague institutions that would help more aggressively, I can guarantee them I can give them another 300 freshmen that would jump at the opportunity for a private, Catholic education.
Kevin: I want to ask you now about the current state of our nation with regard to immigrants on two levels. First, of course, you referenced the COVID pandemic, and I know it has an impact on marginalized communities who don’t have access to healthcare. Also, not to be partisan, but the current political leadership and administration certainly hasn’t been friendly to immigrant communities. Could you talk a little bit about the pandemic, plus the enforcement mentality of our current administration? How has that has made your job more difficult? Because it’s created more fear in immigrant communities but also put them in a position where their health is at risk. How has the university responded to outside factors that are difficult to control and that impact immigrant students?
Donna: We have a number of Title V grants. One of them is supporting a fairly substantial faculty pedagogy initiative that is helping us reshape our curriculum to be more critically conscious and multicultural in our delivery. The speaker who was talking to us last week said something very provocative to me. It’s not my own, so I am giving him credit. He said there are three pandemics we are facing right now. One is COVID-19. The other is this painful evolution of bias that has bubbled to a point of violence, particularly in Chicago and in other communities. Then, there are economic consequences. So I think one of the things that we need to consider when we think of immigrant students or immigrant families or undocumented students is that they are affected by those three pandemics.
There is a lack of racial empathy. They have, often by the communities they are in or by the lack of healthcare, a higher probability of being affected by COVID-19. And then their job prospects, their family, their access to income is — for so many immigrant families — month-by-month, job-by-job. One of the things that people ask me often as we are reopening is, “Why are you reopening? Aren’t students sheltered in place?” In fact, the truth is, many of our students have never had the privilege to stop working. In fact, in many cases, their mother or father has lost a job, and they have had to step in and work more hours at Target or at the community store where they live. This is a student body and a family cluster that is right on the line facing this triple pandemic.
What do we try to do? We try to be supportive. We try to intervene with emergency funding when we can. We are critically aware of the mental health challenges that evolve with all this pressure and try to be formally supportive but also to have faculty and staff that have a particular sensitivity and willingness to be supportive. I think that is one of the things that a Catholic university does well. We have a strong sense of commitment to the whole person and a desire to not only see that whole person but to respect their dignity and to live in solidarity with them. So I think we create an environment that is safer – not safe – and supportive in a very difficult time.
This is a toxic political environment. There is no other way to describe it. For so many of our students, particularly our DACA students, who have gone on the record and who have exposed their location, their name, and their families in some cases, we try to understand what it means to live day in and day out with that lack of security, with that fear of making their families vulnerable. We encourage their voice. Somebody asked me the other day, how is this changing how students react? I said, “They’ll be louder. I expect our students to be louder.”
Emma: Listening to those student voices is an important piece of Donna Carroll’s leadership style and the formation of Dominican University’s mission. Here she is at CMS’s Catholic Immigrant Integration Conference in October…
Donna: We have to start with understanding how the perspective is changing. Right after the Supreme Court decision, one of our DACA leaders wrote an op-ed piece for The Chicago Defender. In it, he talked about how, when his sister first got her DACA, he remembered that she said with real enthusiasm, “I feel like I exist!” You know that that identity issue was so important. Then you fast forward eight years to the threat of rescinding DACA to the toxic political environment to all the economic and health disparities. Carlos, this young man, he reflected and said, “I realize that unlike my sister I’m not looking to be humanized. I’m looking for justice.” I think it’s important for all of us working with immigrants and particularly with undocumented students to realize that the narrative has changed. What’s going on now, especially for our civically engaged DACA students and others, is that everything is magnified. The triggers are shorter, the voices of students are louder, and that’s not inappropriate because it’s a very threatening time.
The other factor that’s changing, at least at Dominican, is that once upon a time there were single issues. Now what I’m seeing is that students talk about intersectionality. We’re seeing that no student wants to be recognized as a single dimension. I am undocumented, or I am this or that. They’re really looking at integrating the different identities in their lives and allying together around those identities in a very different way. We have to adjust our narrative and our services to their sense of integration.
One of the things that Dominican is doing right now, with our students, is we’ve established this new center and the students named it. It’s our Center for Cultural Liberation, and it’s bringing together students across differences to really dialogue about their identity and really to empower one another. It’s been exciting to see.
They’re also supporting one another. I think anybody working with undocumented students knows that their inability to participate in the CARES Act initiative recently was a very wounding and personal slight. These types of gatherings help us and have students helping each other. They came to me. As a result, I went to the Board, and we introduced something called the Trustees Student COVID Relief Fund. We provided for all of our undocumented students what any student would have access to.
We have to recalibrate our perspective, understand where students are right now, understand their advocacy for justice, and their sense of intersectionality, and then build services from there. That’s what Dominican is trying to do at this point.
Kevin: One final question, then I’ll let you have some closing remarks. You are the president of a great university, and you have this incredible knowledge of this issue. If you were president of our country and were sitting in the Oval Office, what are two or three things you would put on your immigration agenda?
Donna: Goodness, [my advice is] to see the possibilities and not the limits. I say this, again and again, 99.9 percent of our immigrant families and our undocumented families are contributing to the growth of the country. We will be better and we will have greater capacity with their contribution. It’s often like we talk about love. You don’t have to cut it into small pieces. It blossoms. I think that the contributions of our immigrant families and our undocumented families will only make us richer.
We have to get our act together and make progress. It’s irresponsible of us this country that has so much wealth, so much intellectual capacity, and has demonstrated the ability to compromise other issues, for us not to craft a pathway to immigration. It’s overdue. If we want to talk about criminals, it is criminal of us not to resolve this.
Kevin: President Carroll, do you have any final comments for our listeners and also where our listeners could go to contribute to the university’s mission in any way as well, that would be helpful.
Donna: What I have learned over the many many years of doing this work? You can’t compartmentalize. Once upon a time, my focus was narrowly on the experience of our undocumented students. I learned that that’s not possible because so many of our students come from blended families, multi-generational families and experiences. As an active advocate for undocumented students, I also have to be an active activist for constructive immigration reform as a whole. The other thing I have learned and I would encourage other people to recognize is that no student is one issue. Any individual student is not merely undocumented. He or she has different talents, disciplines, backgrounds, comes from different racial histories. We need to focus on all of that and to celebrate what that means at Dominican and for our future. There’s a lot of talent out there. Shame on us if we don’t provide opportunities for that talent to make a contribution.
Kevin: President Donna Carroll, thank you for your leadership and for being with us today and for your contributions and the contributions of Dominican University to the common good of all.
Emma: If you want to learn more about Dominican University, please visit: dom.edu. CMSOnAir’s theme music is provided by The Music Case. For more podcasts like this one, you can follow CMSOnAir on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts. To find a full transcript of this episode or get more information on CMS’s research, publications, and events, visit us at cmsny.org.
The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Session V: Reflections on the Role of Catholic Colleges and Universities On Immigrant Integration and the Challenges They Face in their Service to Immigrants
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.