GSE news brief artwork.
Portrait of Stephen Santa-Ramirez.

Published February 14, 2023


Paying it forward

GSE researcher investigates creating scholarships, peer mentoring programs for first-generation Latinx undocu/DACAmented students

According to a recent University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education-led study, higher education practitioners should develop scholarships and peer-mentoring groups to advocate and alleviate burdens for first-generation Latinx undocumented and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (undocu/DACAmented) students.

The research explores how first-generation Latinx undocu/DACAmented collegians in a social and advocacy student organization used their social and navigational capital to create a scholarship and peer-mentoring program for other undocu/DACAmented students. These services were not previously offered to this student population at this public, historically white institution in the Southwest U.S.

Hard work and heart work: First-generation undocu/DACAmented collegians, cultural capital, and paying-it-forward” was published in the Journal of First-generation Student Success in 2021 by Stephen Santa-Ramirez, GSE assistant professor of higher education.

Inspired by his own experiences as a first-generation college student, Santa-Ramirez began this research to elevate the experiences and narratives of other first-generation students.

“Many first-generation students are thriving on college campuses by utilizing their social navigational capital and other kinds of cultural wealth, but oftentimes, those narratives aren’t talked about,” he said. “When we’re talking about issues pertaining to first-generation students, we’re always talking about a need-based community. The positive asset-based narratives need to be shared more in research and practice, showing the talents, competencies and skills that first-generation students hold on our college campuses.”

Santa-Ramirez employed a critical ethnography to investigate the everyday experiences and anti-im/migrant exclusionary policies affecting Latinx undocu/DACAmented collegians. Alongside the members of the student organization, he attended meetings, reviewed grant-funding applications, participated in on-and off-campus events, wrote recommendation letters for scholarships and awards, and provided guidance as an unofficial advisor to the organization.

His research uncovered the need for higher education and student affairs professionals to create scholarships and peer mentoring opportunities for Latinx undocu/DACAmented students so that they do not have to take on these efforts themselves, like the students in Santa-Ramirez’s study.

“These students used their networks or social navigational capital to figure out how to create different resources for their peers. Often, it was because of a lack of different resources, services and support in place at the institutional level,” he said. “[The students] were like, ‘well, you know what, we’re tired of waiting, we’re just going to do it for ourselves.’”

To create scholarships, Santa-Ramirez’s research recommends that higher education professionals partner with development departments to explore fundraising opportunities. Financial support is vital for undocu/DACAmented students because they are frequently ineligible for federal and state aid, which hinders their college access. Many students face out-of-state or international tuition rates, despite growing up in the same state their institution is located.

In addition, Santa-Ramirez recommends that higher education practitioners take action to create physical spaces or resource centers on campus for these students to gather, work and learn from one another.

While many institutions offer mentoring programs for first-year students or students of color, the collegians Santa-Ramirez worked with expressed that they desired a program to address their unique needs. As a result, the students wrote and presented a grant proposal to start this program, and it was accepted.

“Students felt like they needed this initiative for their communities, and they were just tired of waiting for someone else to create it for them,” Santa-Ramirez said. “So, they said, ‘let’s do it. We have the skill, we have the competency and we have the power amongst each other to do this.’ And they did it–and they’re continuing to do great things.”

Although Santa-Ramirez’s study has concluded, he remains involved with the student organization and reviews scholarship applications each year. He feels humbled and honored to have the opportunity to provide support.

“I was lost a lot of times, and I was able to go to my peers for mentoring and to help each other out,” he said. “For me, it’s important to pay it forward to others navigating the same journey. I hope to alleviate some of those pressures from them—because I already went through it.”

Tuesday News Briefs feature the stories of the Graduate School of Education faculty, students and alumni who are engaged in their communities and making an impact through their hard work, dedication and research initiatives. If you have a story to share, please email us with the details for consideration as a future news feature.