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UB professor highlights ‘UndocuJoy’ in higher ed experiences of undocumented students

Stephen Santa-Ramirez.

Growing up as a member of a mixed-status family, UB faculty member Stephen Santa-Ramirez witnessed firsthand the complexities and inequities of immigration law and policy in the U.S. Photo: Douglas Levere


Undergraduate English major

Published February 21, 2024

“These talented, beautiful, brilliant folks are doing so much good in our world, our society, and our colleges and universities. We want to support them holistically, which includes highlighting the more joyful parts of the narratives. ”
Stephen Santa-Ramirez, assistant professor of higher education
Graduate School of Education

“Being undocumented is a condition created to keep us from smiling, but look at us thriving.”

This line in a spoken-word poem by poet and activist Yosimar Reyes inspired a UB faculty member’s most recent publication.

After attending a session facilitated by Reyes at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in 2018, Stephen Santa-Ramirez, assistant professor of higher education, drew inspiration for highlighting the joy in the lives of those with liminal legal status.

Published this fall in the Journal of College Student Development (Johns Hopkins University Press), “UndocuJoy as Resistance: Beyond Gloom and Doom Narratives of Undocumented Collegians,” co-authored by Santa-Ramirez and Kayon A. Hall, assistant professor of higher education at Kent State University, explores how undocumented college students experience and embrace joy despite navigating barriers, such as anti-immigrant policies and racist nativist sociopolitical climates.      

“There’s more to these communities than what the media is portraying, more than the gloom and doom narrative,” Santa-Ramirez says. 

When he and Hall wrote the article, they opened with Reyes’ poem because “it encourages us to consider bringing in the narratives of joy in conversations about undocumented students while we’re also simultaneously sharing the more difficult stories of what these communities have historically endured and are currently facing in the United States and within higher education institutions across the nation,” Santa-Ramirez says. 

The publication joins Santa-Ramirez’s previous work about the experiences of undocumented college students, a theme he feels a strong personal connection to. Growing up as a member of a mixed-status family, Santa-Ramirez witnessed firsthand the complexities and inequities of immigration law and policy in the United States. “As a first-generation student with citizenship privileges, I had access to work study programs, and I could work on campus, and Pell grants, which are federally funded programs. Undocumented students are not eligible for such programs and resources,” Santa-Ramirez explains. 

As an educator, he has worked with students of various statuses: citizens, international students, students on various visas and undocumented students. Although sharing similar identities and lived experiences, he saw undocumented students struggle without the same opportunities he had with his U.S. citizenship.

“I noticed that there was a lot of complexity that some of the undocumented students had to face that was different than my experiences in college,” he says. “That really pushed me to do more advocacy work in my role in higher education as an administrator in support of undocumented communities and folks of various liminal legal statuses.”

Most of Santa-Ramirez’s work focuses on first-generation and low-income students, students from economically neglected geographic areas, college student activism and resistance efforts, and the holistic experiences of undocumented students. 

In this work, he observed that academia tends to “lump everybody together” and employs “a one-size-fits-all model,” he says. He wanted to ensure that undocumented students were not getting lost in this monolithic identity, so he drew inspiration from Reyes’ poem and began to highlight the joy that acts as resistance to the hardships that undocumented students face.

Santa-Ramirez says he believes this is the best time to uplift the voices and experiences of these students and their families because “legislators are not really giving hope and promise to the undocumented immigrant community,” he says. 

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has provided administrative relief for immigrant youth, is still valid for those who received the status prior to July 2021, but remains uncertain for current and future arrivals pending a ruling by a U.S. District Court in Southern Texas. 

 “DACA is still in limbo, even though the current administration has been trying to push for the program. There has been no bipartisan agreement on a path to citizenship in Congress yet,” Santa-Ramirez notes. “But there is a large community fighting for a more concrete, broader path to citizenship that can help out a lot of undocumented and immigrant folks in this country that goes beyond just what we identify as students with DACA.”

With his sights set on the future of immigration to the U.S., Santa-Ramirez is also focused on the future of current undocumented college students. “There’s this thread in my work of their experiences with access to college, their persistence through college to graduation,” he says. “Now I’m expanding that to their post-graduation experiences. Are we, as higher education institutional agents, actually preparing undocumented students while they’re with us, on our college campuses, effectively? And how can we do more to serve undocumented students best when they're with us, enrolled in college, as they navigate the process before graduation?”

Outside of his work in academia, Santa-Ramirez advocates for the racially minoritized, including those who are undocumented and immigrant college students. He currently serves as a 2024-26 co-chair of the Latinx Network via ACPA-College Student Educators International, as an associate editor for the College Student Affairs Journal (CSAJ), and as an advisory board member for both the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs (JCSHESA) and Voces Nuevas via the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).

“I think everyone should keep in mind that undocumented students are here in a plethora of our institutions across the nation,” Santa-Ramirez points out. “And it’s important to teach ourselves about their experiences — the good, bad and the ugly — to take the load off the people already fighting the fight every day, just trying to live right.” 

He hopes “UndocuJoy as Resistance” will focus on the assets, talents and skills that undocumented students have to “promote their communal joy amidst the chaos.” 

“These talented, beautiful, brilliant folks are doing so much good in our world, our society, and our colleges and universities. We want to support them holistically, which includes highlighting the more joyful parts of the narratives,” he says.

“My co-author and I hope that this article and our broader work help other policymakers and scholar-practitioners to better engage with these communities and begin these types of conversations — bringing in more joy, hope and love in our work with, for and alongside undocumented students and immigrants of color writ large.” 

Santa-Ramirez recommends that those who want to learn more about supporting undocumented students view this special issue he edited last fall for New Directions for Higher Education, as well as the “United We Dream” Toolkit for educators.