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This researcher wants to help undocumented students find their place in STEM

While growing up undocumented, Verónica Guajardo didn't see a place for herself in STEM. Now, she's a researcher who's helping students like herself find their own paths.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

I was actually an undocumented student for many years. I came to the U.S. about two or three years after I was born, when I was fairly young, from Guadalajara, Jalisco, in Mexico. Then my parents moved to the Central Valley [of California] from the Los Angeles Basin area to have more secure work. At the time in L.A., there was very overt and explicit raids on communities with Border Patrol cruising in their green trucks everywhere. In the Central Valley, you need labor to pick fruits and to maintain the crops. People looked the other way when those people are there, right? 

My mom's thing was this: “My kids need to be able to get a job after high school and go to work.” She wanted to make sure you finish high school and that you speak English very, very well so that you can get a supervisor's job at the local cannery, because that's where she worked. The cannery was always more desirable than other work because it had set times versus migrant work. 

The packinghouse and canneries were the number-one employers in town. You had thousands of people showing up, three shifts, 24 hours a day. My mom wanted me to get a job as a supervisor because they pay 20 bucks an hour. They wear the white hat, they walk around, they do samples, they don't really get dirty — they come home. They don't smell like tomato, they don't smell like peaches. So for a long time, that was really the only goal that I had, to finish high school and become a supervisor because it's 20 bucks an hour — that's a lot of money.

But it didn't really work out that way. I went to a high school that was basically a dumping ground for students of color, students that were underprepared. They tracked us into technical, hands-on work, not necessarily academic. I never took algebra. I never took anything that was not necessarily hands-on. I did auto mechanic, I did wood shop, metal. I didn't really have any academic skill per se, nor did I know any different. So when [my friend asked me], "What are you gonna do?" I said, "Well, you know, the cannery." She's like, "Well, you should consider a community college. I'm going to go to the community college." 

“Why would I go to college? That's for smart people or people who have lots of money." She's like, "No dummy, this is totally for you. You should come with me and we'll check it out." 

I took my placement exam. I'm proud to say that I placed at beginning for everything — beginning English, beginning math, beginning everything. In many ways, I think I did high school again [in college]. It wasn't something that was expected of me. But once I got into it, I was like, "OK, this is cool. I understand the more credentials you have, the better pay you will have." 

My mom was like, "What are you doing? Go get a job." Then I was like, "I have a job. I'm a tutor." She's like, "What is that?" I was like, "I help people with subjects, you know?" In her mind, though, a job was a full-time thing. Me being a full-time student and then still working even one or two jobs, it's not that she didn't see that as enough. It's that she didn't see the context for that because my mom only had a second grade education. In her view, work equals funding, equals home, equals how you live. Education is a different type of work. I explained to her this is how it works and I do get paid — minimum pay, whatever wage you get as a student.

For me, that was dope: I get to work in an air-conditioned place. There's no pesticides being sprayed on you. You get breaks, you get to go to class. You get to help other students. I was smarter than I thought — enough to become a tutor in multiple subjects. So that was pretty cool, something that I would not have expected. 

I have a lot of admiration for today's youth that are undocumented and unafraid and unapologetic because that was never my framework. When I was growing up, you never told anybody this information because you could be snatched up and somebody could come and grab you — that happens now, obviously. But pride wasn't the prevailing attitude. You were afraid. You didn't go out at night. You don't call the cops. You don't call social workers to help — those people don't help you. It was very much: Stay in your community. We didn't have WASFA and financial aid for undocumented students. We didn't have centers in the schools or in the colleges that have undocumented student resources. Those things didn't exist. 

I became documented around 15 or 16, so I didn't have to go through the college experience being undocumented. The probability that I would have been able to go to college as an undocumented person is pretty low. In fact, I don't remember anybody that was undocumented that was able to go. I'm very lucky in that I did not experience that the way other students have.

Once I was able to become documented, along with my mother, it was like, oh, snap, there's more choices. I'm not relegated just to the cannery. I'm not relegated just to migrant or field labor. There's other choices that I have and college happened to be one of them. When I had doubts about being in college and buying a $300 math book, the flip side was what other options do you have? You have a lot of other options. But this is one of them. That's the beauty of it, that I could do something different, something that I had never thought about before. 

My community college education was the longest. I was at community college for four years and then I transferred, and [my undergrad] was two years. My master's was three years. My other master's was two and my Ph.D. was 3½. 

I'm very proud of that. Community college really set the foundation for how I would learn and how I would think and the goal-setting that I would develop once I got to the other graduate degrees or any other type of degree.

I was an alum of the [MESA] program at my community college — a technology, mathematics, engineering science achievement program that began in California in the ’70s. [Later, I became] a MESA director in California. My job was to look for students who were interested in STEM majors, get their educational plans going and see them transfer and get that STEM degree.

I had started something cool there but I was ready to let that keep going [on its own.] So I said to myself, I'm going to apply to grad school and I either get in or I'm going to apply to jobs. 

I got a call from a colleague here at the University of Washington and she's like, "Hey we have this awesome grant on increasing the number of STEM transfer students to the university. I'd like you to consider coming and running this program — I want you to create the whole infrastructure so that we can start to offer these programs in different colleges." I was like, "Yes. That’s cool." That was exciting to me. So I was state director of the Washington MESA Community College Program. 

My focus has always been on increasing access to underserved and underprivileged students when it comes to STEM degrees. We were able to get state funding to keep [the Washington MESA program] as a permanent item and now we've expanded to 12 programs statewide. I'm really proud of that, to see a program that I'm an alum of here, and they’re everywhere. 

If I was to do research, I told myself it needs to be something that I love, that I care about, that I'm passionate about, that is uncompromising. And it has to be in a department where they support that. I researched the Information School at the University of Washington, the iSchool, and they were totally supportive. When I proposed this, they accepted it.

Verónica Guajardo in downtown Seattle on July 23, 2019. Guajardo is the strategic advisor for operations and strategy for the Department of Education and Early Learning. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)
Verónica Guajardo in downtown Seattle on July 23, 2019. Guajardo is the strategic adviser for operations and strategy for the city of Seattle's Department of Education and Early Learning. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

My purpose was to really look at undocumented students through the lens of information science. What I found was within that scope there's not a lot of research specifically on undocumented students. [Preexisting research] really focused on immigration and migration and the use of technology within these communities, but no one had done that work with undocumented students, especially not undocumented students in higher education. So I specifically looked at their information behaviors, their networks, their technology use and how they use that information to make decisions when it comes to being a student in higher ed. 

I know for a fact that when it comes to higher ed we don't always look at the needs of undocumented students. We do more so now — but there really wasn't a systemic academic way of looking at that and really seeing what that looked like from the perspective of the students. My study not only looked at interviewing students from their perspective, but I also looked at their behavior online and the types of resources that they share with each other, the types of information that they share. 

I also wanted my research to be very human, not just academic. The research method that I used was something called participatory photography. Instead of having a regular interview, I reframed it and said, “OK, you have two weeks or whatever time frame, bring any 10, 15 pictures that tell me who you are.” It was getting the same information from a different lens and now I have this collection of beautiful photographs of what it means to be undocumented.

For another study, we were looking at technology and surveillance at the U.S.-Mexico border, what that looked like and how immigrants and migrants were experiencing that. That's one of the research projects that's [my] most cited work. It's the same idea as the participatory photography: We either had cameras to give to folks or a lot of them had their phones and they would just use that. 

It was a very interesting experience for me, as a formerly undocumented woman, being able to connect with people at the border. It was really powerful. It was also very draining emotionally. For example, women are being abused, raped, and one person told us, "Yeah, most women are instructed to take birth control if they're going to come through the process because you should expect that you will be sexually assaulted." It's difficult to hear that that's an expectation. When it happens, it's not a big deal. It happens to men as well. We've had a couple of those stories of men that were sexually abused by other smugglers and things of that nature.

It's a system that is brutal. Most people just want to come to work and even the Border Patrol agents that we interviewed said, "We know these are people that just want to work. But we have no say, so we can't make that decision [to differentiate]. We wish that policy could change and there would be a difference between people here to work that want to leave and we can focus on that. That's really what we would like to focus on. But in this current age and the policy or the lack thereof, we can't make that distinction and we have to grab everyone."

My mom was here for my [iSchool] graduation. She was very proud. She made ceviche — all kinds of really great food. I don't expect her to know the details of what we do, I think a lot of our students don't even know what we talk about when we talk about grad school, but she is very proud of the work that I've done. 

We need more folks to look at undocumented digital life and technology use. I think that's really, really important. And we need to look at ways in which our schools and our universities and our colleges can be better spheres of working in tandem with protecting, shepherding and supporting the needs of undocumented populations. Not just here in Seattle, but nationwide. We'll remember this time as a time where we saw kids put in cages. And what did we do about it?

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This researcher wants to help undocumented students find their place in STEM

About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is a reporter at Crosscut focused on environmental justice issues.