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Prof. Monica Cornejo, communication, is one of the first, if not the first, undocumented tenure-track faculty members at Cornell.

April 24, 2023

Prof. Monica Cornejo Shares Experiences as an Undocumented Immigrant in Academia

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The pathway to academia can be difficult for many. But becoming a professor can be more arduous when also dealing with the struggles of being an undocumented immigrant in the United States. This is the reality for Prof. Monica Cornejo, communication, who is one of the first undocumented tenure-track faculty members at Cornell.

Cornejo first immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was six-years-old. She is currently an undocumented immigrant and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. 

An undocumented immigrant refers to any person who resides in a country without legal documentation. DACA is a program started by former President Barack Obama in 2012 that is now discontinued. It offers protection from deportation, and is valid for two years before it can be renewed. However, it is not deemed an official pathway to citizenship.

Before starting at Cornell, Cornejo completed her undergraduate studies at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University in psychology, and then received her Ph.D. in communication from the University of California, Santa Barbara. At UCSB, she was one of three undocumented Ph.D. graduate students. Today, she is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication.

Cornejo spoke to The Sun about the struggles of being viewed as more than her status as an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient.

“I would say that one of the struggles [of being an undocumented immigrant] is being in a room and [not] being treated as an individual that is more than just a status. What I mean by that is, yes, I am undocumented, and yes, I am an immigrant,” Cornejo said. “That is a very important part of my identity, but there is more to my identity. I am an academic. I am a researcher. I am a partner and I am a daughter.”

Cornejo’s status as an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient has inspired her work as a professor.

“When we talk about academia, we have this very exclusive ivory tower, where only certain people get to be brought in and [contribute to the] broader movement to support oppressed and marginalized communities,” Cornejo said. “Being part of that marginalized community has pushed me in that direction to want to make change.”

Cornejo said she feels that academia has offered a safer space for undocumented immigrants such as herself compared to other industries.

“Here in academia,” Cornejo said, “there are people who actively support [us] and there are avenues for [us] to complain.”

Despite this, Cornejo said her status has also impeded her work as a professor.

“Regardless of the amount of time that I’ve been here, and with no criminal record [and] all of these degrees that would otherwise mean social acceptance of a person — not to say that should be the only reason you should accept someone,” Cornejo said, “[these indicators of social acceptance] are often not what is seen when we discuss immigrants, and undocumented immigrants particularly.”

During her time as a student and now as a professor, Cornejo cannot travel internationally for any conferences or apply for certain opportunities, fellowships or federal jobs because of her status. 

There are many barriers that exist specifically for undocumented students in academia as well. According to Cornejo, many immigrants are considered international students, which requires them to pay the higher international student tuition rates. Moreover, following the discontinuation of DACA in October 2022, students are unable to apply for internships and jobs in the United States because they no longer have work authorization. Current recipients of DACA may remain in the program and receive protection under the program, however, new applications are not being processed.   

Currently, the University has resources in place to support undocumented faculty and students, such as the Building Relationships to Aid Growth and Empowerment program and Cornell University Impact Fellowship. In addition to formalized resources, several faculty members are currently conducting research on immigrants and undocumented communities, Cornejo said. Currently, Cornejo is researching and interviewing undergraduate students about stressors and support systems in universities. 

Still, Cornejo believes that the University could have a stronger stance on aiding undocumented students.

“There seems to be a hesitancy in having discussions because we would be one of the first Ivy League universities to be doing this,” Cornejo said. “I’ve heard things like ‘Let’s see what Harvard is doing’, which is a fair response, but I would argue, why can’t Cornell be the leader in this? We pride ourselves for being for ‘any person, any study’ — undocumented immigrants would fit into that category.”

According to Cornejo, tangible actions that the University could take include creating a center and full-time team to support undocumented students.

According to the National Library of Medicine, minority representation in academia is important because it improves the self-image and overall student outcomes of minority-identifying individuals. Through her role as a professor, Cornejo hopes to provide representation and inspiration to other underrepresented minorities.

“Empower yourself,” Cornejo said. “Organize, strategize. Find your people. I think that’s important.”

Stuti Gupta is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].