Member Stories: Alvaro Cruz

Meet Al, a 3rd year graduate employee studying psychology. As part of our ongoing contract negotiations with the Administration, GEO has proposed language that would expand our non-discrimination clause, as well as language designed to protect international and DACA students in the event that they have to miss work due to mandatory visa or immigration proceedings. In response, the Administration demanded we provide them with testimonials from our members to demonstrate the need for these proposals. A number of our members, like Al, bravely stepped forward to share their stories, but still, the administration has refused to sign our language. We need as many people to pack the room at our bargaining session on Tuesday to demonstrate our power to the Administration and make some real strides in winning protections for our membership! You can read Al’s full story below:

My name is Alvaro Cruz. This fall I will be a third-year graduate employee in the Psychology department, and although I’ve yet to receive an official appointment letter, am planning on working as the lecturer for PSYC 235, Intro to Statistics.

As it relates to my experience, the opportunity to attend a University has always been intertwined with access to external funding that is not federal student aid or loans. My K through 12 educational experience, as a Latino kid growing up on the outskirts of Chicago was no different than that of millions of public school working-class students across the country. It wasn’t until senior year of high school that I realized that as an undocumented student going to college would be that much more difficult due to my inability to access said federal aid. Internal doubts I had were brushed aside with external ones; a high school counselor who didn’t believe I would be accepted to, much less be able to attend college, and sent one application four weeks late. The only reason I know this happened is because this was for my eventual alma mater and a counselor there told me so. Luckily, I was at the right institution at the right time and I was able to receive an aptitude-based tuition waiver which was the principal reason I was able to attend and ultimately graduate college in 2013, double-majoring in Applied Psychology and Mathematics and minoring in History.

There were struggles along the way, like not being able to work at the university or have any stable form of employment. My freshman year of college I worked at a retirement home as an activities aid. It was a pretty considerate job, they understood my college schedule and I had enough for books and the rest of the fees my tuition waiver didn’t cover. Eventually though I had to quit after a few months since I failed to provide the proper documentation proving my ability to legally work in the United States. Having to disclose my immigration status as an 18-year-old to the Human Resources department and my direct supervisor was emotionally exhaustive and disheartening but it quickly opened my eyes to the limiting circumstances of the workforce world I had to learn to navigate. From that point on for the remainder of my time in college I worked at a restaurant and in odd jobs where I would be paid under the table and off record.
Sophomore year, I was told by a then-friend that I was undeserving of my tuition waiving scholarship, since to them my immigration status seemingly nullified my academic aptitude and made it unfair for other people like themselves who had been fortunate enough to be born within the borders of this country. There were also hateful messages written over portraits of similar students such as myself. They had proclaimed to be undocumented and unafraid and had several coming out of the shadows events on campus to raise awareness around legislation such as the DREAM Act and broadly help the push for immigration reform under President Obama’s first term. And their voices were heard, though not everyone was willing to hear them or see their faces cast on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

After graduation I applied for DACA, or Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals, an executive order enacted by President Barack Obama in 2012 providing immigration relief to individuals like me, who had arrived to the United States at a young age with their parent(s) and had practically no say in their current immigrant status. This permit granted me the opportunity to be lawfully employable. I worked for about a year and half but the job never felt like a career, and I decided to apply for Quantitative Psychology doctoral programs. Eventually I settled on attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign not only due to its offered tuition waiver program but also the welcoming atmosphere I felt as a DACAmented student and future employee. I moved to Champaign and began my first year in the fall of 2015. The staff at the Psychology department have been welcoming and attentive to my specific needs, and luckily I’ve never been personally victimized for my immigrant status these past two years. There has been fewer opportunities in the form of fellowship and grant ineligibility, and though technically I am a state of Illinois resident I am an international student for official purposes with the University, which I should note factors into tuition rates. But I’ve been able to work, and am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to do so. The tuition waiver as a form of compensation has provided me with another option to further educate myself without the burden of taking out substantial student loans. Similar to my undergraduate experience, if it weren’t for the tuition waiver I would not be in a position to pursue higher education. I simply wouldn’t be able to afford it.

After the past election I felt the need to come out to my students, as a person that could directly be affected by the president-elect and his proposed policies towards immigrants. They were supportive and despite the several instances of hateful chalk messages in the university quad directed towards undocumented immigrants I’ve felt the majority of people in the campus community and beyond have been caring. I have however heard from fellow classmates and students that haven’t been so fortunate. They’ve been told to speak English by community members, as if speaking any non-English language is somehow an unacceptable transgression. And in the workplace they’ve received threatening behavior from students; thrown notebooks and other belongings, aggressively questioned for policies put in place from the very beginning of the course, and overall been inexplicably undermined while other TA’s such as myself, for whom English is not a second language, perhaps have not had to face such informal vetting. My wish would be for them to share their story personally but they would rather not draw attention to their teaching, lest they be deemed inadequate for the job. I’ve also seen far too many videos shared by immigrants living in this country who’ve been harassed for their accents, for the way they look, for seemingly not being “American” enough. This is a sad reality for our country, and though personally I do not find it edifying to always assume the worst behavior in others it is important to be aware that there are those whom still take part in vitriol behavior towards others based on appearance and perceived immigration status.

The last two years I’ve had to miss at least a day of instruction three separate times due to immigration issues. Twice I had to drive to Indianapolis for biometric appointments, once to Chicago for an interview and fortunately all three instances did not interfere with my job duty as a TA but it did however interfere with my graduate courses. And I was fortunate to have an understanding lecturer and supervisor for my teaching assistant course who assured me beforehand that should any immigration appointment fall on a day of instruction that they would cover it for me. I wish I could say that all of us could rely on understanding and empathetic supervisors but I do not quite believe we can reasonably expect all people to be this way. This is why we need to further protect our growing international student body, many whom are also members of our union and work as teaching or graduate assistants. They may also have personal immigration matters to attend to but might not necessarily have the supportive supervisors I’ve been fortunate enough to have myself.

As of April of this year I was able to apply for permanent residency through a marriage petition by my husband and I am no longer a DACAmented student. Yet I do not want to forget what that was like. Nor do I want people who have my previous immigrant status or any other one that is harder to index to have to go through the smaller pool of opportunities that I went through. On the contrary, I can speak for the rest of my colleagues and fellow Graduate Employee Organization members when I say that we want to make it easier for prospective students, employees. We want to uplift them, make sure they have the most opportunities, for them to live their years here to the fullest so that they may be able to reach their brimming potential. And please understand that in helping us to do so, with a fair contract, also helps the University and the rest of the students.

The University works because we do. And if you have workers who feel supported and fully upheld in their workplace, then they will be the best employees they can possibly be. And that is beneficial to everyone, from the students and other workplace individuals, to the employees themselves, to the employer at large.

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