A self-admitted overachiever in high school, Denise Panaligan was a student on the fast track to success. She spent her summers participating in student research programs and her school days in student government when she was not cracking the books. She pulled in astronomical scores on her SATs and got accepted into her choice of private colleges out east.
Everything seemed to be going her way until the high school senior got the surprise of her life: Her parents confided that they — and she —were not U.S. citizens. Somehow, they had lost their legal status after coming in legally from the Philippines.
At first, Panaligan said, “I didn’t know what that really meant. … I thought I could work my way out of this undocumented status. I thought if I just worked hard enough, America would love me.” When she finally grasped the scope of her predicament, she became depressed. “The fact that a single piece of paper could have such an effect on my life — that didn’t make any sense to me.”
For many young people, discovering that they are undocumented can bring on an emotional whirlwind that strips away self-worth and identity and leaves them mired in depression, feelings of isolation, vulnerability, guilt and anger.
A march in Los Angeles on immigration reform
But after finding her way to UCLA, Panaligan found a safe place to share her feelings with other undocumented students at UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services. She and her peers find resilience through weekly talking circles, hosted by the CIRCLE Project, where they receive emotional support as well as advice on staying well and healthy.
“I met all these wonderful, amazing and empowered undocumented people,” said Panaligan of the talking circles and other campus events she’s attended to support undocumented youths. “They weren’t afraid to say they were undocumented. They weren’t ashamed. They were unapologetic. They wouldn’t let anyone take their identity away from them.”
Created in 2012 by the Dream Resource Center, part of the UCLA Labor Center, the CIRCLE Project (Collective of Immigrant Resilience through Community-Led Empowerment) is one of several programs offered on campus to help hundreds of UCLA students whose undocumented status touches on everything from getting along with family members to searching for a job and finding financial assistance to remain in school.
The CIRCLE Project
In the talking circles —attended by approximately 10 to 15 UCLA students who drop in each week —youths tap into the power of storytelling, said Imelda Plascencia, a project coordinator at the Dream Resource Center and a 2011 UCLA graduate. "We’ve been able to use these stories to transform people’s lives and hearts and influence policy. Now it’s time to use our stories to heal ourselves.”
Today, talking circles for undocumented youths and adults exist at five host sites in the L.A. area, including the UCLA campus, where a talking circle was set up specifically for students. To help make that happen on campus took the collaborative efforts of the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, the Bruin Resource Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, the LGBT Campus Resource Center and the Department of Social Welfare in the Luskin School of Public Affairs, in addition to the labor center.
“It’s a really nice network of organizations that’s brought different parts of the campus together to help undocumented students,” said Paolo Velasco, interim director of the Bruin Resource Center (BRC), where several programs and workshops to support undocumented students are organized by Angela Chen, coordinator of the Undocumented Student Program. The BRC, which started in 2009, was one of the first in the nation to offer programs on a college campus specifically geared toward supporting this group of students.
And while the needs of undocumented students have changed as new legislation and policies have eased some of their burdens, the BRC continues to play an evolving role to meet students’ most pressing challenges. When the California Dream Act was passed in 2011, allowing eligible undocumented students to receive financial aid, the Bruin Resource Center partnered with the UCLA Financial Aid Office to offer workshops to guide students through the application process and help them gain financial literacy. During the current academic year, about 100 students attended three workshops to help them apply for financial aid.
Under the new presidential directive, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, undocumented students can now legally hold a job. So Chen is working with Student Legal Services and the UCLA Career Center to organize a workshop explaining what undocumented students need to know about work authorization and how to utilize resources on campus to find jobs.
Angela Chen, coordinator of undocumented students programs at the Bruin Resource Center
Chen is also reaching out to campus administrators to explain that hiring an undocumented student is easy and does not require more paperwork or additional steps.
More than 250 undocumented students receive weekly updates from the center informing them about workshops and other resources available to them. Chen meets one-on-one with 12 to 15 students weekly and stays connected via email and phone to approximately 50 students weekly. About 30 students attend each of the three to five workshops hosted per quarter.
The CIRCLE Project, which is largely run by volunteers, is a good example of how campus units have worked together, Chen said, to address the mental health needs of undocumented students, with a focus on wellness.
Leading the weekly drop-in talking circle at UCLA is Betzabel Estudillo, a graduate student in social work at the Luskin School and a CIRCLE Project coordinator who knows firsthand about the emotional upheaval students feel. Now a permanent legal resident, she found out she was undocumented in her senior year in high school. (Estudillo talks about her discovery in a video below). While her internship in the project is funded by the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, she is based at the Bruin Resource Center and consults weekly with Chen and a staff psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services, where talking circle members meet.
“Betsy has done a phenomenal job in getting the CIRCLE Project off the ground and really meeting the students where they are,” Chen said. Each week, the group explores a specific topic, such as stress, time management, identity, a tool kit to reduce anxiety, and meditation.
“The talking circle gives students a safe space to really express their thoughts about issues, about identity and about how we should take care of ourselves as well as our families,” Estudillo explained at a recent program organized by Luskin graduate students in social work. The program informed representatives from community organizations about the challenges undocumented youths face and the CIRCLE Project’s professional development workshops offered to school counselors, health care providers and other professionals who work with immigrant youth.
That’s an important connection to make with people who may not be familiar with what being undocumented can feel like, organizers said.
When Panaligan confided in her high school counselor about her undocumented status and asked how she could obtain financial aid for college, “She told me, ‘I don’t know how to help you,’” the UCLA student recalled. “The way she talked to me made me so discouraged,” Panaligan said. Although the counselor had known her as a diligent student for nearly four years, “She basically forgot about everything that I was and just focused on me as undocumented. … I didn’t matter anymore because I didn’t have papers.”
Fear of being accused of “breaking the law” and of deportation force many families to hide their secret.
“I kept it to myself because I felt like I was the only undocumented student in the whole nation,” said Mario Pizarro, a third-year student majoring in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics. He came from Chile to Los Angeles with his mother when he was 9. But that wall of isolation cracked when he joined the talking circle at UCLA. “In the talking circle, I was able to express myself and get that pain off my chest. I started finding people going through the same things I did,” he said.
Mariana Vega, a third-year student majoring in business economics, found similar relief when she shared her feelings of worthlessness. “There are so many different ways in which I feel like I’m not worth anything,” she said, “because … whether you are renting a place, want to get a cell phone or check out a book from the library … you need papers and proof that you are somebody. If you don’t have that, you’re nothing in this country,” she said tearfully. “How can that be? How can a piece of paper say what you’re worth as a human being?”
After joining the talking circles and meeting a mentor, Vega said, “l’ve been lucky at finding the right people to help me out and push me forward.”