Undocumented graduate with her parents

Reflections on the California Campus Catalyst Fund

“Big Bet” Pays off for Undocu­mented Students

Lessons for Philanthropy from the California Campus Catalyst Fund

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By Cathy Cha, Haas, Jr. Fund and Katharine Gin, Immigrants Rising

Marisol Montejano Guzman’s path to her dream job as a teacher was far from easy. First came the challenges associated with being an undocumented immigrant and not having a Social Security Number or work visa. Next, she had to delay college because it cost more than she and her family could afford.

“All I remember is being tired,” she says of the period when she almost dropped out of California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), because of the stress of studying while working two low-wage, full-time jobs and being a full-time mom.

That’s when a university counselor recommended that Marisol talk to the staff at CSUSB’s new Undocumented Student Success Center. Within days, the center supported her to apply for her work permit, find a good job on campus, apply for scholarship funds, and even secure high-quality child care for her two kids.

“I thank God every day that I walked into that center that first time,” Marisol says. “The team there literally transformed my life.”

At age 36, Marisol received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics at CSUSB in 2020. She is currently working as a full-time guest teacher in the San Bernardino Unified School District.

Marisol is one of thousands of Californians whose lives have changed because of expanded services for undocumented students on 32 public college and university campuses since 2018. At a time when undocumented immigrants continue to face an uncertain future in the United States, these new support services—including everything from mental health and legal services to family support, peer networks, paid work opportunities, and other resources—provide a lifeline for students and their families.

It’s a lifeline made possible by an innovative collaboration between funders, educators, advocates, and students known as the California Campus Catalyst Fund. The collaboration offers a model for how philanthropy and higher education can work together to deliver critical supports to students and families who for too long have endured the pain and prejudice of the nation’s immigration policy fights. And now the State of California, inspired by this privately funded initiative, is investing public dollars to weave these supports further into the fabric of campus life.

“Fearing for Their Futures”

At last count, an estimated 427,000 students at U.S. colleges and universities were undocumented, representing 2% of all students in higher education. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program adopted by the Obama administration in 2012 was intended to protect these students and other young undocumented immigrants from deportation while providing them with legal opportunities to work. But DACA has been caught up in repeated battles in the courts, and a case on the legality of the program is likely to go before the Supreme Court next year.

All of which has left students like Marisol fearing for their futures. Those fears were especially pronounced in the wake of the 2016 election, when former President Trump and his administration were stepping up ICE raids and deportations, as well as threatening to end DACA. That’s when a small group of funders, advocates, and educators in California started talking about how philanthropy could help undocumented college and university students and their families find more support.

At the time, Meng So, director of the Undocumented Student Program at UC Berkeley, said he and his team were struggling to respond to the wave of trauma undocumented students were experiencing on the Bay Area campus.

“There was a real understanding in the community that this was an existential threat to their hopes and dreams,” he said.

Absent a few standout programs like UC Berkeley’s, philanthropic support for undocumented students has been traditionally focused on scholarships. By 2017, a few campuses had established undocumented student programs, and the University of California system had launched a systemwide effort to provide legal services for these students. But such efforts were either scarce or nonexistent across the California State University (CSU) system, and particularly at the state’s 116 community college campuses, which serve an estimated 70,000 undocumented students.

To fill the gap, the partners in the Catalyst Fund developed a three-year plan to support campuses across the state to develop new programs or refine existing ones.

“Sending a Strong Signal”

Following an application process and a collaborative review that included undocumented students, the 32 campuses received their initial grants. Over three years, grants to each institution averaged $324,000. Grantee campuses included one UC institution, three CSU institutions and 28 community colleges in all regions of the state. In all, the Catalyst Fund raised more than $14.4 million to help build lasting institutional infrastructure and capacity across these campuses.

One of those campuses was College of the Desert, a community college located in Riverside County in the Coachella Valley. Using grant funds from the Catalyst Fund, the college hired a staff member to lead outreach to local high schools and the broader community with a focus on educating undocumented students and their families about the opportunities the college provides. The Catalyst Fund monies also allowed the college to commit more hours for campus counseling staff to support undocumented students on issues from financial aid and scholarships to DACA, naturalization, and legal services.

“Step one for us with this support was sending a strong signal to our undocumented students and the whole community that undocumented students are welcome and supported here,” said Amanda Phillips, dean of counseling services at the college.

Investing in Families and Student Leadership

The design of the Catalyst Fund reflected an understanding that it’s not just undocumented students who need services and support; their families do, too. With support from the fund, campuses launched targeted outreach to students’ families, offered “mixers” and other events for students’ parents to build community, and connected families to legal services to help with naturalization, deportation defense, and other issues.

“We know from experience that if a student’s family is struggling, then the student is often going to struggle too,” said María Blanco, who played a critical part in the design team for the fund as executive director of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center. The Catalyst Fund also supported paid fellowship programs for undocumented students as a way of nurturing student leadership and voice. Fellows pursued a variety of special projects based on their academic and career interests, with some taking a leadership role in advocating for and expanding campus services for their peers.

Takeaways for Philanthropy

After seeing how the California Campus Catalyst Fund sparked lasting impact for undocumented students across California, we have identified three takeaways from this experience for philanthropy:

Play offense—and focus on systems-level impact. The partners in the Catalyst Fund weren’t interested in a reactionary, tit-for-tat approach to the immense threats that undocumented students were facing under Trump. “This was a big, transformative bet aimed at shifting higher education practices and policies when it comes to standing up for these students and their families,” said Raquiba LaBrie, former program director for college success with the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and now vice president of programs with the San Francisco Foundation.

Supporting scholarships is an important and worthwhile investment, but the focus of the Catalyst Fund was on changing campus systems and culture in ways that would support all undocumented students to thrive. “This was a really ambitious initiative to try and drive change on these campuses and bring critical supports to diverse communities across California,” said Chhandasi Pandya Patel, then program officer with the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Work for sustainability. The Catalyst Fund was designed from the get-go to try and ensure that participating institutions like College of the Desert would continue to support undocumented student services after the sunsetting of the Fund. The funders’ plans to step down funding after three years were communicated clearly to campuses, as was the requirement that campuses put some “skin in the game” through dedicated funding of their own, in-kind support, and other commitments. The Catalyst Fund application asked campuses to include sustainability plans detailing how they would continue the work.

Yet another sustainability strategy built into the Catalyst Fund was support for student fellows on all of the participating campuses. In addition to supporting paid work experiences in their areas of interest, Immigrants Rising trained fellows in advocacy skills so they could become powerful proponents for ongoing support for undocumented students on their campuses. Each year during the Catalyst Fund’s three-year run, Immigrants Rising convened the fellows to meet with their peers from other campuses.

“Those events helped create a shared understanding among students that they had peers across California who shared their experiences and their commitment,” said Victor Garcia, who directed the Catalyst Fund for Immigrants Rising and now works as a program officer with the James Irvine Foundation. “It was also a movement-building opportunity to help students think about how to create more support for this work on their campuses,” Garcia said.

María Blanco, director of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center, said the California Campus Catalyst Fund’s support for fellowships, together with its broader focus on sustainability, helped seed long-term institutional and government support for undocumented student services across California. “There is no way a lot of these campuses can go back on this now,” Blanco said.

Embrace public-private partnerships that can take solutions to scale. By showcasing the power and the potential of investing in undocumented students, the Catalyst Fund put down a marker for the state government. In fact, shortly after the start of the Catalyst Fund, California began providing dedicated funding for free legal services for undocumented students on California Community Colleges and CSU campuses, with this support continuing in recent budgets. “The Catalyst Fund elevated very publicly the need for legal services among these students and their families, and that helped prompt the state to realize this was an important investment of public monies,” said Blanco.

Starting in the 2020-21 state budget, California lawmakers also approved new funding for the hiring of “Dreamer Resource Liaisons” for immigrant students, including undocumented students, at the state’s community colleges. This funding, which was increased in the following year’s budget, is supporting community colleges to sustain and strengthen many of the support services that were seeded with the Catalyst Fund’s investment, while expanding those services to other campuses as well.

The state’s investment “really shows philanthropy at its best in terms of lifting up and seeding solutions that can then be carried on and supported by the government,” said Leslie Dorosin, co-executive director of the Grove Foundation.

A Bold Response

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our work with the other partners in the California Campus Catalyst Fund is that difficult times require philanthropy to stretch. In the face of the enormous threats facing undocumented immigrants during the Trump administration, a group of diverse funders and their partners embraced an untested and, some would say, long-shot idea. That’s the kind of courage that today’s challenges and divisiveness demand of us all. The courage to take a stand for people and communities whose very lives are in the balance because of ginned-up hatred and zero-sum politics. The courage to lead with our values. And the courage to try something new.

Cathy Cha is President and CEO of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. Katharine Gin, who contributed to this case study, is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Immigrants Rising.

Funders of the California Campus Catalyst Fund included: Chavez Family Foundation; College Futures Foundation; Crankstart; ECMC Foundation; Grove Foundation; Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; Ginnie and Peter Haas, Jr. Fund; Heising-Simons Foundation; Hellman Foundation; The James Irvine Foundation; Kelson Foundation; Loud Hound Foundation; NextGen America; and Weingart Foundation.