On Monday, January 30, Seattle University Student Government President Carlos Rodriguez, an openly undocumented student, resigned from his leadership position, citing the need for self-care amidst the political climate. We spoke with Carlos about his decision to step down, his work to help undocumented students, and his hopes for the future.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
NCLC: Tell us about your background and your family. What was your journey coming to the United States like?
Carlos Rodriguez: My family — mom, dad, brother and I — have always been together [as a] pretty strong, united family. We came to the United States back in 1999 when I was 3 years old. I don’t have many memories of living in Mexico or living my life over there. I came here through Texas and then moved to Georgia. Ever since, we’ve lived in Georgia for most of our lives. I’ve moved around a bit, to North Carolina and Florida. My brother attended college, and I attended college; he graduated last spring, and I’ll graduate this spring. That’s currently where we’re at — although we dealt with many unfortunate things living in the south, we’re still together and united.
NCLC: What was your path to college like? What made you choose Seattle University?
CR: It’s an interesting story. When my brother attended Seattle University, he found the school because there was an op-ed from our university president, Father Stephen Sundborg. He talked about supporting undocumented students in higher education and enrolling them in colleges and providing them with resources. My brother read that while looking for a college to attend and that’s how he ended up here and he encouraged me to apply. It was a school that was welcoming to undocumented students, and in Georgia, there is a ban on undocumented students. So I knew I couldn’t attend college in Georgia, and that’s why I came to the other end of the country.
NCLC: What was your experience like once you got to campus? What improvements did you recognize that the campus needed to make to support undocumented students?
CR: There’s a lot of work that can be done to support a lot of students that carry different identities. I think about other undocumented students who are here at school and are not open about their status. I hope they are getting resources and hope they know what resources are available to them. This university needs to be more vocal about the kind of projects they want to do. It’s one thing to be open and accepting to undocumented students, but it is equally as important to ensure they are financially able to attend a private institution like this one.
There are some schools that are doing great work, like Loyola Chicago. I go on their website for resources all the time. The University of Washington is another one — I go over there pretty often to get resources from them, which is an obvious issue. I shouldn’t need to go to another university for this. I would prefer to see those things being offered at Seattle University. I will be working with the administration, as a student, and finding ways to collaborate and open access to resources.
NCLC: What motivated you to run for student body president?
CR: My status [as an undocumented student] had a big influence. I was in student government as a junior class representative last year. One of the projects I worked on was resources for undocumented students, but I didn’t get that far. There are some limitations — lack of awareness or education about undocumented students. Some people didn’t know what an undocumented immigrant was. I was shocked. I think education on that is a big piece. After worked on that project for a year, I felt like I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. As president, I wanted to bring awareness to the stories of undocumented students.
NCLC: You mentioned that you were working on some of these undocumented resources and had a difficult time making progress. What do you attribute this to? If you could send a message to administrators across on the country on how they can better support undocumented students, what would that message be?
CR: Looking at this from an intersectional perspective, how we carry certain identities and what groups are affected by certain policies, you have to wonder how you can collaborate other groups. How do we help immigrants, international students? People who identify as Native American? How do we treat Muslim students on this campus? What if people identify with multiple identities? I really would like to see more work like that happen.
We shouldn’t be having these conversations now just because students are being tormented by politics. We should have been having those conversations long ago. I started working on this project for undocumented students awhile ago and got nowhere. But, now that students are directly being targeted [...] it feels so reactionary. I wish we could be more proactive about these issues. My voice last year was small, but I wish there was more attention to it then so that we wouldn’t have this problem now in light of the executive orders on immigration where we are scrambling. We should have been talking about this a while ago.
NCLC: What are the tangible steps you are now taking in order to help these communities?
CR: My status as [an] undocumented immigrant was revealed late November of last year after the election. In a letter that I sent out to the student body, I talked about how I was willing to fight for basic human rights and the rights of the students on this campus. Once I shared my story on the local NPR station, social workers reached out to me, and students reached out to me. There was one student who reached out to me and was applying to college and he asked me what it was like to be undocumented in high school. He asked me questions that I was asking myself, but at his age, I didn’t have anyone guiding me in that way. After we met and had dinner, I got an email from the counselor who he was working with. The counselor mentioned this student finally felt like college was a real possibility. That’s a very tangible thing that I have done so far — help encourage students who are like me. I also helped a friend of mine renew his DACA application. I have filled out that application before and sent it in the mail. I helped this person renew his DACA application. He’s going to be using that to be employed, to feel safer in this country. For me, it is very meaningful.
NCLC: Since you’ve resigned from your position, how has your student government reacted? What’s happening now since the resignation?
CR: My student government has been very supportive. And I know they will continue to do great things in the future. Four of us in our student government have resigned thus far; we want to do work in our communities. I think the student government now is asking how they can be more inclusive and more effective communicating with administrators and campus community groups. I think there is going to be a really big change with how student government functions. I’m excited to see how they can change. I’m confident in my decision to step down as president.
NCLC: Do you have advice for students who are fighting for similar causes through other avenues?
CR: The first thing is to take care of yourself. I attend a Jesuit institution and care is one of our main values. I was working 30 hours a week, student government was 10 hours on top of that, so I was working 40 hours a week — on top of being a full-time student. That is stressful. It’s a lot. For me to quit so I could take better care of myself, even for me, it is shocking. I would have never done this months ago. But self-care is very important. Take time to refresh and recharge. And also question the work that you are doing what that looks like for other people. Does it align with your values?
NCLC: If other student body presidents could do one thing to better support students like you, what would that be?
CR: Advocate for resources on your campuses. Some universities around the country have spaces dedicated to undocumented students. We should fight for better access so that other minority students can go to college. We need to really rethink about higher education overall and how accepting we are. There have been so many decisions that have been made on college campus that don’t consider what it is like for undocumented students
I want people to think about how campus policies affect vulnerable communities — question everything. Question everything that impacts students’ lives.