A Day in the Life of a Dream Center

By Gerson Liahut- Sanchez
Government Relations & Communications Fellow, Community College League of California 

Friday, October 18, 2019

During this time of political turmoil for members of the undocumented community, it can be difficult to place any trust in institutions of education due to fear of exposure, deportation, and lack of safety. In an effort to alleviate these concerns, the California Community Colleges has made a commitment to its students that regardless of legal status, all Californians are deserving of a quality education. Some colleges have taken this commitment as far as creating centers on their campuses dubbed “Dream Centers.”

The Community College League of California spoke with Pamela “Pam” Ortiz Cerda, a DACA recipient and undocumented advocate, about a day in the life of a dream center. Pam is the Dream Center Program Coordinator at Skyline College in the San Mateo Community College District.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

League Staff
What does a Dream Center do? / How do you define what you do?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
A Dream Center varies in functions and services. Primarily, we want it to be a place that provides holistic support for undocumented students but not only for academic resources. It’s a one-stop-shop for legal services, health, matriculation, basic needs, textbook support, advocacy support and ultimately, and probably most important, a safe space for undocumented students.

League Staff  
Can you walk me through what a day is like at your center?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
That depends on the day. Every day is different.

  • Mondays we host Financial Aid drop-in hours with someone from the Financial Aid office to assist students with Dream Applications.
  • Tuesday afternoons we host the Undocumented and Allies Club.
  • Wednesday nights are free legal clinics. Our attorney specializes in Immigration law, tenant rights, and family law.

League Staff
On average, how many students do you see in a day? In a week? And in a month?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
We see students all day because of the various services but since the start of the academic year. We have had 313 recorded visits—that’s 313 in the span of two months.

League Staff
Are you connected to other Dream Centers within the California Community College system? How do you work together?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
We’re lucky to work in the San Mateo Community District because all of our campuses have a center. We have a collaborative meeting once a month to plan projects, share resources and ensure that institutional policies are undocumented student-friendly. I was really excited to meet Dream Center and undocumented student support staff from other community colleges at a regional meeting organized by the Chancellor’s Office and Immigrants Rising.

League Staff
Can you tell us the difference between AB 540 students, DACA recipients, and undocumented students? And how you serve those populations differently?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
That’s a really important question. I have to emphasize that having DACA does not provide legal status and that only a small percentage of the undocumented community benefits from DACA.

  • DACA is a conditional permit for undocumented young people to gain lawful work permits, a stay from deportation, and some other benefits, but they are still undocumented, and it does not provide a pathway to citizenship.  
  • Students that completed a combined total of 3 years at California elementary, middle, and high school, adult school, and/or community college credit and/or non-credit courses AND received a California High School Diploma or GED qualify for the AB 540/SB 68 affidavit that provides in-state tuition and access to state financial aid. Immigrants Rising recently created an awesome tool to help students figure out if they qualify: https://immigrantsrising.org/qualifier/.
  • While both of the above are different benefits for some undocumented students, it is important to remember that there are still undocumented students that do not qualify for any of these benefits and still try to pursue an education with much fewer resources that are available to them.

League Staff
What’s a common misconception people have about your center?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
Many people confuse undocumented students for international students and expect us to provide international student services. Because international students have visas with specific requirements and limitations, the Dream Center is not equipped to serve them. Skyline does, however, have an international student office to support our international students

League Staff
What do you feel like is unique about Skyline College’s Dream Center?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
The Skyline College Dream Center is housed with our campus’ SparkPoint Center. SparkPoint works to help students and community members achieve financial self-sufficiency so this partnership allows us to provide additional services like a food pantry and financial coaching. The Skyline Dream Center is also unique because it is open to community members, not just students.

League Staff
What are some common obstacles for students that you serve in reaching their academic goals? How do you help them get through them?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
A big one is the lack of clarity regarding policies like the Dream Act and AB 540/SB 68. Many undocumented high school students are unaware of California laws that help them. We have often found students paying thousands in non-resident fees not realizing that they qualify for in-state tuition. It’s my job to identify these students and help them. Additionally, assisting students that do not have DACA and thus cannot work. Many undocumented students also have to help and support their families so finances can be a big barrier

League Staff
If our colleges could do one thing to help these students, what would it be?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
Establishment of centers WITH a dedicated staff member. I’m aware of some colleges in the state that have centers but are only open during certain days/hours of the week because the person working the center is primarily a counselor or faculty member. With a dedicated staff member so much can be done. It is also important to have regular UndocuAlly training available for staff, faculty, and administrators to learn how they can best support undocumented students.

Please see Pamela’s "A GUIDE TO BUILDING ON-CAMPUS UNDOCUMENTED STUDENT PROGRAMS." It is a step-by-step guide created to help campuses establish an undocumented student support program. https://tinyurl.com/UndocuGuide

League Staff
Are there ways that communities can better serve these students? If so, how?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
Communities can support by getting informed and being aware of the issues and policies affecting undocumented people. They can also help by advocating, voting and making their support known and visible.

League Staff
What can colleges that do not have a center do to aid undocumented students?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
Establishing a task force of staff, faculty, and administration that meets monthly to work through policy, advocacy, programming, and how to remove institutional barriers for undocumented students. Colleges can also host UndocuAlly training, and make sure their support is visible. They should also publicize things like the Dream Act, entrepreneurship and Know Your Rights workshops to make sure that students know and have access to the resources they need.

League Staff
Anything else you would like to add?

Pamela Ortiz Cerda
I would like to recognize all of the undocumented student leaders and staff, faculty and administrator allies that have been advocating and doing this work for years now. It is thanks to them and years of work and advocacy that we are able to have things like Undocumented Student Action Week. I would like to encourage folks to continue doing this work because it truly does make a difference for many people.

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