College Park, Md––Dr. Janelle Wong is a leader, faculty member, and advocate at the University of Maryland (UMD) in support of undocumented students.
Dr. Wong is a professor of Asian American Studies Program at UMD. As a California Native, Dr. Wong has always been motivated to get involved in issues regarding immigration. “ I come from a family of immigrants,” said Dr. Wong. Immigration issues have always been a matter of concern for Dr. Wong because her grandparents moved to the United States (U.S.) when the exclusion of Chinese immigrants was still legal in the U.S. The first of those exclusion laws in the U.S. passed in 1882- The Chinese Exclusion law which severely restricted immigration from China until 1965. An additional eye opening experience, as Dr. Wong described, was in 1994 when the state of California passed a legislation that would be targeting immigrants who lived in the U.S. in a clandestine manner through Proposition 187. One way that Dr. Wong knew she could make a difference was by raising awareness on the effects and barriers faced by individuals with different immigration statuses in the country. A way in which she contributed to the immigration narrative was by conducting research in areas such as immigration, Asian American Studies, and and political participation.
Dr. Wong earned her Ph.D in 2001 from Yale University. From 2002 to 2012 she then worked at the Departments of Political Science and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. In 2012, Dr. Wong started her journey at UMD, where she started as the Director of the Asian American Studies Program. In 2013, Dr. Wong experienced as she recalls her “first interaction with an undocumented student.”
A Korean American student who was both an Asian American Studies Minor and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) student met with her to ask for support in terms of raising awareness on campus of the issues Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) undocumented students faced. The second interaction took place when a student came to seek help in order to start the tedious process of tuition reclassification, which means gathering documents and writing letters to UMD officials in order to be eligible for in-state tuition. Dr. Wong wanted to help the student and quickly realized that there were no resources available for undocumented students on campus. She decided to get in touch with other undocumented students, who had already graduated because they could be a voice for other undocumented students, and share their experiences on how they navigated the university system while being undocumented. Her goal was to also raise awareness on how undocumented graduates could work and use their degree once they graduated from the University. As a matter of action, she decided that it was important to launch an event along with the Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy (MICA) Office called Undocumented Terp Dreamers Coming Out of their Shells. This event took place in 2014 with the goal to help guide current and graduating undocumented students. The purpose was to brainstorm opportunities that undocumented alumni could engage in, or ways to begin their career track once they graduated from UMD. The event was a success with over one hundred attendees.
This event also became a turning point for the institution in terms of the support and visibility of the issues faced by undocumented students known as UndocuTerps. During this time Dr. Wong got in contact with a former student who had been very involved and was considered a national advocate for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM Act). The former student had connections with other students organization at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). At that time UCLA had hired Angela Chen as the Undocumented Student Program Coordinator. In her role she advocated for undocumented students. Unfortunately, a position like this at UMD was nearly impossible to implement because UCLA had a four million dollar budget, and UMD did not have a budget for an additional program coordinator. After the Undocumented Terp Dreamers Coming Out of Their Shells event, in 2015, Dr. Wong and Yvette Isela Lerma Jones, Latinx Student Coordinator, together set a goal to create a full time position at UMD to mimic UCLA’s Undocumented Student Program Coordinator. This position would be able to aid undocumented student affairs at UMD. The advocacy for this position continued in 2015 when Dr. Wong and Yvette, decided that with the collaboration of the Chief Diversity office and Warren Kelly, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs that they would request a meeting with Dr. Wallace Loh, UMD President. The goal for the meeting was to inform the University of the need of a staff member who strictly works with undocumented students and create resources and opportunities for undocumented students. They, unfortunately, were not able to meet with President Loah instead they met with the president’s cabinet. During this meeting Dr. Wong, Yvette, and Warren shared that they believed that UMD was in need of a person that works with undocumented students. After the meeting, the team decided to follow up on the issue of bringing awareness to undocumented students and having a person to support and advocate for them. With time and perseverance, they were able to get a meeting with President Loh at which time six student advocates would attend. Students voiced their concerns and shared that one of the biggest challenges facing undocumented students was that they were not receiving accurate information from different units on campus (admissions, registrar, bursar, etc). Instead, they were being told to either go to another office or given conflicting information from different offices. This created stress and confusion. The goal was to persuade President Loh to realize that a person was needed to support undocumented students by coordinating information across campus units.
President Loh’s Chief of staff agreed that services and support for undocumented students were a need on campus. A temporary assignment was created and filled by Yvette to work specifically with UMD undocumented students. All of the aforementioned advocacy, is one way in which Dr. Wong has played a crucial role in institutionalizing resources for undocumented students and also increasing the visibility of these students issues on campus. Other ways include creating the current website- undocumented.umd.edu, facilitating UndocuTerp trainings, and also engaging in written statements of support made by her department. She continues advocating for undocumented students within the community and hopes to continue to do so on campus. “I still think the University needs to do more to help undocumented students.” Dr. Wong shared. As of now her vision is to expand the services and create more resources available to the undocumented student coordinator as a way to expand capacity. Some of these include an assistant, a bigger office that includes a student space/lounge with the goal of it becoming its own center at UMD. When I asked Dr. Wong what would happen to this role if the DREAM Act was passed, she mentioned that the need would always be there because it would take up to 15 years for undocumented students to become U.S. Citizens. Dr. Wong explained that the U.S. will always see a wave of undocumented immigrants because history and research have shown this throughout history. Dr. Wong’s current project is to establish a scholarship that has monetary funds available to undocumented students on campus.