UCI News

Working to make dreams a reality

Campus fellowship program lets undocumented students gain career-related experience – and be compensated

by Lilibeth Garcia, UCI | October 29, 2020
Working to make dreams a reality
Economics major Kevin Dominguez, a junior at the time, was part of the DREAM Project Fellowship program’s first cohort last year. “It was a great experience that would inspire any undocumented student to continue to work hard and never give up, even when the odds are clearly being stacked against them,” he says. Steve Zylius / UCI

Academics are just one aspect of a university education. Anteaters often use their college years to gain valuable work experience preparing them for a future career. But for some, employment is a privilege. Undocumented students, particularly those who aren’t recipients of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, lack work authorization – a harmful barrier on top of not qualifying for federal financial aid and, therefore, having to pay more of their tuition out of pocket. It can inhibit the ability of such students to reach their true potential.

With the help of the entire UCI community, the campus’s DREAM Center has found a way to address this problem via its DREAM Project Fellowship, which provides experiential learning, professional development and networking opportunities to students regardless of their immigration status. Each fellow is paired with a university mentor who has offered to guide him or her through a yearlong project. The work supports the participant’s career goals while benefiting the sponsoring unit. In addition, the fellow can count on an award of $1,300 per quarter for an entire academic year. The funding comes from the host site or donations made to the DREAM Center and is distributed through UCI’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships.

The program debuted last year, with 36 schools, departments and offices sponsoring 37 fellows. Economics major Kevin Dominguez, a junior at the time, was part of its first cohort. He was placed with the Division of Finance and Administration’s office of the chief financial officer, where he worked on two main projects: an internship database for later collaborative projects between the division’s departments and campus partners, as well as an interactive analysis of the office’s expenses during the previous academic year.

“It was an econ major’s dream,” Dominguez says. “Working with DFA allowed me to witness how different departments constantly work together toward the common good of keeping the school afloat. My career aspirations evolved as I went through that experience.”

Through the fellowship – and with the help of his supervisor, Annie McGregor – he acquired significant resume-building skills as he was exposed to and participated in performance evaluation meetings, creative thinking sessions, project progress reporting and interdepartmental interviews.

Dominguez’s dream is to become a financial adviser. After graduation, he hopes to work in a financial services office, focusing on equities, investments or business plans. “The resources I received during my fellowship helped me envision how far I could go with my degree and how far other individuals have gone with similar degrees,” he says.

Working on the fourth floor of Aldrich Hall with a sweeping view of the campus was the cherry on top. Dominguez says it gave him a sense of privilege and pride in his progress as an undocumented student.

The financial award allowed him to pay for doctors’ visits, medication and healthy foods, as well as contribute toward his family’s expenses. “Being compensated made me feel like my status wasn’t a factor in the quality of my work,” Dominguez says. “It was a great experience that would inspire any undocumented student to continue to work hard and never give up, even when the odds are clearly being stacked against them.”In all, the DREAM Project Fellowship provided $133,200 in 2019-20, and this year, despite pandemic constraints, that number will nearly double. More than 60 students will be working, often remotely, with various units to achieve their goals. Sponsors include the School of Medicine, School of Law, Department of Chemistry, and Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships.

“In our first year, we realized that the holistic benefits of this program address much more than work eligibility,” says Yadira Hernandez, assistant director of the DREAM Center. “Our students are making a broader impact, not just for the UCI community but for the community in general.”

Fellows have worked on innovative research, coding, intersectional and inclusive initiatives, community archives, creating awareness and much more. In fact, Hernandez says, the DREAM Project Fellowship program is being shared as a model at regional and national conferences. And as the future of DACA remains uncertain, such cross-campus collaborations are increasingly important.

“Building opportunities for students regardless of immigration status has been a collective effort of the DREAM Center, campus partners, mentors and student advocacy,” Hernandez says. “We don’t want the DREAM Center to be the only location where students feel safe and welcome. We love when they feel safe across campus in multiple offices.”