From left to right: Maria Perez, Vania Davina, Hulyana Rodriguez and Yareli Suarez were members of Dreamers Welcome, a student organization at Cardinal Stritch University.

With the closure of Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee’s undocumented students lose a home

A financial deficit that forced Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin to close down left many of Milwaukee’s undocumented community with nowhere to go. Stritch was seen as a welcoming place for undocumented students facing additional barriers to higher education. Now, students are trying to replicate its services at other colleges.

The World

The shuttering of Cardinal Stritch University north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a blow to students and alumni. The school’s president said declining enrollment and a financial deficit necessitated the closure.

It was also a loss for Milwaukee’s undocumented community. Stritch was seen as a welcoming place for undocumented students, who face additional barriers to higher education.

Sinai Mendoza is one of them. She always knew she wanted to go to college.

“I worked my butt off through high school, worked really hard,” Mendoza said. “I remember I had a picture of Harvard in my locker my freshman year, because that was like inspiration, right? Like I’m going to make it through college.”

As an undocumented immigrant, Mendoza wasn’t eligible for federal loans or grants. She also wasn’t eligible for in-state tuition at University of Wisconisn (UW) schools.

Sinai Mendoza hugs her mother at her 2018 graduation from Cardinal Stritch University.
Sinai Mendoza hugs her mother at her 2018 graduation from Cardinal Stritch University.Courtesy of Sinai Mendoza
“So I know from my end, I have to be able to get a scholarship that would support me through my four years of college,” Mendoza said. “And Stritch did that.”

Out of all the schools Mendoza applied to, Stritch offered her the most aid. It’s something you hear from other undocumented students as well: The private, Catholic university was the most affordable option because of the level of institutional aid it offered them.

Marilyn Jones, an assistant professor of Spanish at Stritch, said it’s a reflection of the school living out its Franciscan values.

“If I can say something about [Cardinal] Stritch [University], it’s that we embraced our mission to serve the underserved.”

Marilyn Jones, assistant professor of Spanish, Cardinal Stritch University

“If I can say something about Stritch, it’s that we embraced our mission to serve the underserved,” Jones said. “A lot of people really embraced that mission. They saw that this was everybody’s responsibility to help our students first — feel like they were welcome, they were valued, for who they were.”

As a faculty member at Stritch, Jones helped Mendoza and other students form a club in 2017 called Dreamers Welcome.

A booth for Dreamers Welcome, a student organization at Cardinal Stritch.
A booth for Dreamers Welcome, a student organization at Cardinal Stritch.Courtesy of Maria Perez
“It was a pretty rough year because it was when [former US President Donald] Trump had gotten elected, and there was a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric going on,” Mendoza said. “We wanted to start an organization for undocumented and DACA-mented students on campus.”

DACA-mented refers to recipients of Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a special protection for some undocumented young people who were brought to the US as children. They are also known as Dreamers.

Dreamers Welcome not only supported students, it helped educate faculty and staff about legal and other challenges undocumented students face.

Mendoza graduated from Stritch in 2018. But Dreamers Welcome continued. Its last president was 20-year-old Maria Perez, who just finished her sophomore year.

“Once I heard that Dreamers Welcome was a part of Stritch, I felt safe,” Perez said. “Like I felt immediately safe.”

Perez is one of about 30 undocumented students who were attending Stritch this past spring, according to a school spokesperson. Her family migrated from Mexico when she was a child and she had to figure out college on her own.

“I remember, one time, my dad told me ‘I’m not going to be able to pay for your education,'” Perez said. “So when he told me that, it was like, ‘OK, should I even go through with it? I have good grades, but how far can that get me?'”

Perez didn’t need to worry. She received a full-ride scholarship to Stritch. She lived on campus and studied clinical psychology. Then, in April, Perez was at a Starbucks studying for exams when she found out Stritch would close at the end of the semester.

“I went into my car and I just cried because it didn’t feel real. It felt like a dream,” Perez said. “And I just kept crying because I didn’t know where my education was going to stand, if other schools were going to accept my scholarships.”

In the months since then, Perez decided to transfer to Mount Mary University, which, as part of a “teach-out” agreement, had pledged to match the financial aid and credits of Stritch transfers.

Sinai Mendoza, the Stritch alum, said she is sad that future undocumented students won’t be able to attend her alma matter.

“I’m still thinking about future generations and future students who thought Stritch was going to take them in, and probably that’s not possible any more,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza added that the values Stritch instilled in students, including serving the underserved, will live on with them. And Maria Perez said she plans to carry on the work of the Dreamers Welcome club by founding a similar organization at Mount Mary.

Related: 200,000 ‘Documented Dreamers’ are literally waiting a lifetime for a green card

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