IWU senior develops counseling for undocumented teens

By Rebekah Smith, staff reporter

Among undocumented immigrants, nearly one third have less than a ninth-grade education in comparison of the 13 percent of legal immigrants and the two percent of US-born citizens.  Children and teenagers of undocumented immigrants have a constant struggle with the relentless limbo of their situation.

IWU senior Sylvia Rusin took the initiative to create a resource guide to assist school administrators in better understanding the situations and issues faced by these students.

“My goal with the guide was to help high school principals, teachers and counselors create safe zones, effective support networks and to encourage undocumented youth to pursue post-secondary education,” Rusin said.

Rusin, a sociology and Hispanic studies double major, interned this year at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago.  Rusin mission was to identify a school to begin a pilot program. While many principals and counselors were interested, they wanted literature to distribute to their staff.

“The problem was, there literally wasn’t any existent literature on the mental health aspect of undocumented youth for this audience,” Rusin said. “So, I decided to make it.”

After research of the psychological effects of the undocumented status of children and teens, Rusin found that many of the teens aren’t aware of their lack of citizenship until they reach the age of 16 when they are unable to obtain a driver’s license or job, unlike other students in their class.  Common psychological effects include rage, depression, and lack of motivation.

“Not having these rights can take quite a toll on that individual – physically, psychologically, and emotionally,” said Nina Butler, a senior psychology and Hispanic studies double major who spoke at a workshop about learned helplessness in undocumented youth.

School counselors are often unaware of the underlying causes of their students’ sudden change in behavior, attitude, or school performance.   According to Pew Hispanic Center, 40 percent of undocumented immigrants ages 18-24 do not graduate high school, and only five to 10 percent of those that complete high school continue their education in college.

Rusin’s resource guide describes the Illinois DREAM Act, which was designed to create scholarships, college savings and programs for prepaid tuition programs that can be available to undocumented immigrant students who graduate from high schools in Illinois.

The guide also helps school administrators and counselors understand the problems faced by their students.

“The problem is, undocumented students don’t just need a green card and college advice. They need someone to talk to, someone to help them survive the fear and struggle of their daily barriers, someone to turn that sparkle of the American Dream into a reality,” Rusin said.

“I am so glad Sylvia has brought attention to this matter because not only does the government need to enforce new policies for undocumented youth, but undocumented youth will need special support because of their highly unique situations and the struggles they encounter,” Butler said. “I think she is helping to take a step in the right direction to get undocumented youth the support they truly deserve, both psychologically and legally.”

At Illinois Wesleyan, Sylvia Rusin is the president of the national Spanish honors society, Sigma Delta Pi.  She is also a member of Alpha Lambda Delta, National Society of Leadership and Success, and National Honors Society.

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