Thai-Huy Nguyen and Marybeth Gasman
Day two of the Salzburg Global Seminar on "Marginalized Students and the Institutions that Serve Them" has just concluded with a panel on displaced students from around the world. Engaged by the panelists, Susana Muñoz (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), William New (Beloit College) and Ita Sheehy (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), I couldn't help but wonder what displaced students or youth need in order to gain any semblance of agency and possibility in their lives. Although the experiences of displaced individuals vary greatly by country and by the very rules that govern their movement, in many ways, they must also bear the persistent feeling of uncertainty. Especially for students and youth, keeping such feelings at bay comes at a heavy cost of who they are and where they come from.
Within the context of the United States, Muñoz discussed her in-depth studies on undocumented Mexican college students and the structural challenges that these students encounter in navigating the disclosure of their undocumented status. "Students' legal status is shaped by anti-immigration policies, which cultivates a culture of silence. When institutions serve undocumented students, they must be competent in the lived experiences of undocumented students. Some institutions want to 'protect' these students, but they don't need protection. These students need to feel empowered to unpack what it means to be silenced and undocumented," said Muñoz. In other words, when undocumented students are given the opportunity to achieve a notion of self-discovery--through student activism, for instance, where identifying as undocumented is a source a pride--they gain a sense of self, which is a critical ingredient for continued resilience.
The uncertainty of displaced people is persistent in other geopolitical contexts. The Roma people, unfavorably known as "gypsies," are a diasporic population primarily located in central Europe and Greece. For centuries their nomadic status has become the root cause of their marginalization--access to poor housing, segregated education, and strict language policies barring the Roma language in schools--among mainstream European cultures and communities. New argues that, "it's impossible to define European culture without the Roma." Indeed, the Roma people have a long and rich history and a variety of cultures and dialects that reflect their locale. Unfortunately, it does little to encourage Roma student achievement. According to New, very few Roma students who graduate high school are prepared for the rigors of higher education. In Hungary, however, Roma students have higher college graduation rates due in part of a language policy in Hungary that requires all students to learn and speak Hungarian. Some Roma parents are happy with such legal constraints because it represents a possibility that their children will thrive within the mainstream. The notion of protecting cultural identity is not a priority amidst the need to survive and secure a healthy future, explains New.
Although, some progress has been made for displaced communities, laws and policies protecting them do come with demand; and these demands have grave implications for the ways in which individuals of these communities can prosper in their host country. In the United States, 1.2 million children are undocumented. There are 10-15 million Roma throughout Europe. And according to Sheehy, 45 million individuals around the world are displaced, and 88% of this group is located in the least developed countries, according to Sheehy.
Must undocumented students and displaced youth give up their sense of identity to secure their future livelihood? Among its many responsibilities, the UN commission must develop ways "to maintain harmony between the host and refugee communities." The concept of harmony seems like the key challenge in shaping the difficulties faced by marginalized and displaced groups. How can harmony be achieved without sacrificing rich cultures and traditions? What are the possible solutions? Muñoz believes that leadership to address the chronic issues affecting undocumented youth must come, not from those on top, but "from the community." Further, Sheehy encourages the Salzburg fellows to "broaden the minds of their students, especially those not at the margins" about the plight of those displaced and undocumented. It is by simultaneously creating a space that amplifies these students' voices through support and empathy that we can we enact meaningful change.
This essay was written as part of the Salzburg Global Seminar (SGS) - Students at the Margins and the Institutions that Serve Them. #Salzburg MSI The SGS is sponsored by the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, Educational Testing Service, and The Kresge Foundation.