When Sandra Gutierrez first came to UC Santa Cruz, the college experience overwhelmed her. She felt she was not as prepared as her peers because she couldn’t afford to attend private school or take AP classes.
College was the first time Gutierrez was completely responsible for keeping track of all her responsibilities and she found it difficult to manage her time as a proposed human biology major.
“I was raised by my mom and she was the one who would tell me to study [in allocated times],” Gutierrez said. “When I went to college I was really set on sticking with sciences […] but because of my high school I wasn’t necessarily in the same level as other students.”
Gutierrez found support in her first year from the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP). The program reviews all incoming first-year and transfer students to provide those from historically disadvantaged or low socioeconomic backgrounds with support and resources to succeed in college.
“Our job as an office is to help equalize that experience for students and to ensure they have opportunities to be successful,” said EOP director and Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success Pablo G. Reguerin. “In the name EOP, the middle name is opportunity and that is really our job.”
The program’s main focus is the academic retention and success of underrepresented students on campus. As of last year, about 40 percent of UCSC students are low income. EOP students are also commonly the first in their family to attend a university, Reguerin said. More than 40 percent of UCSC undergraduate students are first generation.
EOP supports students through academic and social workshops, academic advising and a textbook library. In the 2015-16 school year, EOP held about 2,000 advising appointments for its students.
Gutierrez is now in her fourth year at UCSC and is a declared politics major.
Her EOP academic advisor noticed she was struggling in classes and helped her guide her priorities. She realized she could not pursue human biology while balancing all her other extracurriculars.
“I thought I could do everything,” Gutierrez said.
As part of EOP’s mission to help underrepresented students, the program automatically grants EOP status to undocumented students who are not eligible for federal scholarships and loans.
Martha Ortega, interim undocumented student services coordinator for EOP, works as a liaison between undocumented students and the university. She assists them with academic advising, scholarship advice and workshops including mental health services from the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office.
She said being an undocumented student in college can be challenging, especially for those paying their own way through school.
Ortega said many undocumented students don’t qualify for a work permit if they don’t have social security numbers. EOP teaches students about alternative forms of employment, such as independent contracting, where they don’t have to disclose their immigration status.
For the last two years, including this quarter, EOP has been facilitating workshops on how to become an independent contractor and training UCSC staff on how to hire these students.
“We do have certain students who are going to be graduating,” Ortega said. “So we want them to have as many skills as possible before going into the workforce.”
At UCSC, Ortega also coordinates with the financial aid office to help undocumented students receive grants and scholarships included in the California Dream Act.
The California Dream Act eases the cost of higher education for undocumented students by providing state and university grants. Since its implementation during the 2013-14 school year, 75,000 students in California public university systems and community colleges have received about $71.4 million in state grants and scholarships.
“There is no federal aid for undocumented students,” Ortega said. “Although some are eligible for state grants or scholarships, many undocumented students pay everything out [of] pocket for their education.”
Before the California Dream Act was enacted, Ortega said it would typically take six to seven years for undocumented students to graduate. Since it was implemented, that time frame has shortened to four to five years because many undocumented students don’t need to take time off to work.
Applications for the California Dream Act are down this year compared to this point last year, even though the application has been open longer than ever before, according to the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC).
Patti Colston, communications manager for CSAC, said to USA Today there is some uncertainty about the reason for the decrease. However, she said she believes it’s due to anxiety to share personal information following the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Ortega said more undocumented students at EOP are being vocal about their concerns, including the future of the Dream Act, and said EOP will continue to find other resources to help undocumented students.
She was unable to disclose how many undocumented students are enrolled at UCSC, though in 2015 there were about 2,500 across the UC system according to UC News. Ortega said undocumented student counselors need to be more cautious when disclosing certain information about students.
“It’s a vulnerable population,” Ortega said. “They contribute to the UCSC community […] not only on campus but in the surrounding communities. Many of them are tutors, advocates, community organizers, so they deserve to be here.”
Standing up to Trump’s administration
President Donald Trump assembled a task force on Feb. 9 with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to target undocumented communities regarding their legal status.
Locally, Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) was part of a five-year Department of Homeland Security (DHS) investigation on Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang activity. SCPD, in partnership with DHS, arrested 10 people based on immigration status.
“There is a lot of mistrust in the community and a lot of fear and anxiety,” Ortega said.
Some undocumented students are protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), under which they are able to attend higher education without fear of deportation. DACA is an administrative program, introduced in 2012 under former President Barack Obama, that provides renewable work permits and deportation relief for eligible immigrant youth who came into the U.S. as young children.
There is still uncertainty as to whether Trump’s administration will repeal DACA, as the White House has prioritized targeting undocumented people who have committed a crime or are perceived as a threat to public safety.
Trump gave his first statement about DACA under his presidency at a Feb. 16 news conference when he stated, “We’re going to show great heart” for DACA students. But Trump incited fear using harmful rhetoric saying “gang members” and “drug dealers” may misuse the program.
Since many undocumented students are uncertain of their future in the country, the EOP office has tried to address new, heightened fears following the new presidency and ICE raids in Santa Cruz.
Many college campuses, including UCSC, have come together to protect vulnerable students who are affected by Trump’s executive travel ban, new task force and harmful rhetoric.
“We stand in solidarity with, and will continue to advocate for Muslims, refugees and undocumented citizens, queer and trans folk, people with disabilities, people of color, Indigenous communities, women and all of the people at the various intersections of these identities,” according to a statement published by the EOP office Jan. 30.
Since the inauguration, EOP has given more holistic advising aimed at addressing students’ increasing needs and concerns. EOP worked with CAPS to provide students with more psychological services, including the weekly program, “Let’s Talk,” where EOP students can go for drop-in confidential sessions with a professional CAPS counselor.
Pablo G. Reguerin, EOP director and assistant vice provost for student success, said it is important to show EOP’s commitment to their students.
“We have a legacy of bringing down barriers by demanding that we have equality and equity in our educational system,” Reguerin said. “I want people to remember we come from a tradition of speaking out when there is a lack of opportunity and I don’t want people to forget the history of these programs and why they are important.”
Reguerin said this is not the first time in EOP history the program fought for equal opportunities.
EOP was created in the 1960s, when disadvantaged students saw a lack of opportunities and resources in higher education and fought for access and equity.
“We have to take stances and our work has to represent that as well. It just can’t be a posting or words on a piece of paper, ” Reguerin said. “Our staff advisors are great ambassadors and care deeply about their work. So we try to harness that passion to serve our students.”