The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing social and economic disparities in the United States. As college faculty, we have seen this play out among our students. Our students have communicated that their stress levels are high as they struggle with grief, isolation, job loss and lack of motivation.
In March 2020, when campus shutdowns began, we and 14 colleagues were in the midst of conducting a survey of more than 3,000 California undergraduates, including those who were undocumented and from mixed-status families. Our goal was to examine the impact of contemporary immigration policies that marginalize undocumented immigrants and individuals with precarious legal statuses. Given the timing of our survey, we also asked participants about the early effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their educational experiences.
Our findings (published here and here) reveal that the pandemic has disproportionately affected those young adults and their families. As colleges and universities continue to engage in remote learning and limited campus activities, we identify three ways that faculty members can support and advocate for immigration-impacted students.
No. 1: Strike a balance between synchronous and asynchronous activities. Many students have struggled with the move from in-person instruction to remote learning. In our study, a substantial proportion of undocumented students (43 percent), U.S. citizen students with undocumented parents (48 percent) and even U.S. citizen students whose parents are lawfully present (41 percent) reported that the pandemic had affected their academics “a great deal.” These young adults shared that their ability to pay attention to their academics had been compromised by having to conduct their schooling from often overcrowded family homes. Others identified “difficulty in concentrating on longer assignments” and being “not motivated to do my classes because they're all online.”
Of the three groups, immigration-impacted students identified the most challenges and underlying strains that distracted them from their academics. One undocumented student shared, “My family doesn't understand that I am still in school. I have chores, have to get groceries, drive people places, get gas, cook, take care of my cousins … I have to pause my Zoom lectures more than 10 times because someone at my house is talking, yelling, cooking, playing, screaming … Sometimes I watch my Zoom recordings at 1 a.m. because it is the only quiet hours I get at home.”
Reflections on their inability to concentrate were also layered with immigration-related strains: “I cannot concentrate … I think of how my mom's work is overworking her with no benefit and no overtime pay just because she is undocumented.”
Given these challenges and strains, asynchronous course delivery is an important option to accommodate students’ new family and financial responsibilities. However, this course format may also deprive students of opportunities to learn from their peers or interact with their instructors. Faculty members should try to balance these trade-offs. For example, in synchronous courses, they could offer alternative activities to make up for missed synchronous activities and allow students to turn off their cameras during live lectures. For asynchronous classes, faculty could institute small group activities or projects.
No. 2: Guide students in identifying ways to promote their mental well-being. Thirty percent of undocumented students reported that the pandemic negatively affected their mental health “a great deal,” compared to 23 percent of U.S. citizens with undocumented parents and 21 percent of U.S. citizens whose parents have lawful immigration status. Undocumented students and citizens with undocumented parents often indicated that general pandemic uncertainty was layered on top of their own and/or their parents’ undocumented status.
One undocumented student shared that they were “overthinking many situations ‘of what if,’ thinking of how can I help my undocumented family. Emotions of anger because my people who are undocumented are the essential workers and will never get recognize[d] … I fear that I might need to stop college because I might need to work since I am the only adult in my family with a legal work permit. I feel guilty to be in college more than ever.”
Campus closures have most likely harmed students’ ability to cope with these strains. We found that among all student groups, those who reported using campus resources more frequently before the pandemic had a higher likelihood that their mental health was affected “a great deal” because of the pandemic. Further, undocumented students who had visited an office or met with a staff member who focuses on supporting undocumented students were more likely to report being affected “a great deal” in their mental and physical health, compared to students who had not accessed such services. This relationship suggests that separation from campus-based resources was detrimental to undocumented students’ mental health during the early stages of the pandemic.
To help students manage these difficulties, faculty members should become more familiar with campus mental health services that are available during the pandemic and encourage students to use such services. They can share this information on the syllabus and/or course webpages to draw students’ attention to it. Faculty members can also guide students to develop strategies to promote mental well-being, such as breathing techniques, mindfulness meditation and journaling.
Encouraging students to informally get to know each other or collaborate on class projects can also help students ward against social isolation. Faculty members should be on the lookout for changes in students’ engagement levels -- if a student, say, misses class or assignments -- and reach out to them to offer support. They can also encourage the institution to hire more mental health counselors with experience serving immigrant communities.
No. 3: Reduce the cost of course materials and advocate for resources to buffer against financial strains. Financial difficulties underlie the academic and mental health strains of immigration-impacted students. As many as 35 percent of undocumented students and 32 percent of U.S. citizens with undocumented parents reported their family financial stability being affected a “great deal” by the pandemic. Meanwhile, only about half as many students whose parents have lawful immigration status (18 percent) reported such severe effects.
Responses from undocumented students and U.S. citizen students who have undocumented parents suggest that these financial strains are tied directly to their parents’ legal vulnerability. One U.S. citizen with undocumented parents wrote, “No one in my family is receiving any stimulus checks or government assistance.” Undocumented students were similarly ineligible for stimulus checks and also barred from obtaining federal emergency COVID relief funds directed toward college students. These status-related financial barriers are layered upon a multitude of financial challenges endorsed by all three groups of students, including job loss, fewer paid work hours or being furloughed. At the same time, however, many other immigration-impacted students reported that they and their family members worked in essential jobs, allowing them to continue working but requiring them to risk their health.
Faculty members should work to reduce the cost of course materials, especially given that students may not be able to use their usual creative solutions such as borrowing materials from one another or the library. Additionally, campuses might establish small grants for educational purchases that will help students study, such as noise-canceling headphones and laptop stands. Administrators should also consider expanding grant aid to students, including those who have been forced to attend part-time as a result of financial insecurity.
After a year of isolation and physical distancing, rising vaccination rates offer hope of a return to normal. Campuses have announced plans or have already returned to in-person activities. But remote options will probably continue, and we still face a long road to recovery from the economic, mental health and academic impacts of shelter-in-place orders. We university educators, administrators and service providers must continue our efforts to offset these disparities by attending to the distinct ways in which the pandemic is impacting immigration-affected students’ financial security, mental health and academic performance.