UCSC Students "Working For Dignity"

UCSC's relationship with immigrant students

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - It's one of the most liberal schools in the country. A university that not only supported recent protests like one students held against the Muslim Ban, many instructors even supporting students leaving class to attend them.

"I was really grateful that my professor actually stopped class and said [the protest] is more important right now" said one student protestor.

In a time where many immigrants feel that their future in the U.S. is uncertain, The University of California, Santa Cruz not only provides refuge for immigrant students, it nurtures them. Undocumented or not. Pablo Reguerin oversees the schools Undocumented Student Services Center.

"Essentially what we do is partner with students to look at what they're interested in doing in terms of their goals" said Reguerin, Assistant vice provost for student success. "Then based on what they're interested in doing in terms of their goals and then based on what they're experiencing, if there's any barriers our job is to work with them to support them to be successful."

In 2015, UC Santa Cruz was designated a Hispanic Serving Instituion by the US Department of Education. One of the requirements to get that designation includes having a student body of at least 25 percent Hispanics. The university surpassed that number in 2012 when it hit 28 percent.

UC Santa Cruz is also one of only 10 Hispanic Serving Institutions that is considered a higher research institution.

A great combination for students like Ruben Espinoza and Andres Arias. Sociology students who've worked with their professor Steve McKay on projects close to their hearts.

The first called "Working For Dignity" - focuses on those in the workforce not getting the rights and protection they're guaranteed.

"It started when some community organizations came to us with a research puzzle and basically it was a California Rural Legal Assistance who served low-income workers" said Steve McKay, an associate sociology professor at UCSC. "They were noticing that a lot of workers were coming from agriculture and moving into low-wage services but they hadn't seen any documentation or research so they asked us, in order to improve their services, they wanted to know what's going on with this trend and what are working like."

And from there, the project was born. That was back in 2014, now Steve and his students, many children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

"Our research is better because the students themselves share a background, share a language with the folks and so they're able to get better research and then they learn sort of methods of doing research themselves." said McKay.

A sentiment echoed by the students.

"I'm serving people like myself I'm serving and I'm interviewing people like my parents who are also low wage" said undergrad student Andres Arias.

Steve says the research has exposed important findings for workers that didn't know they had a voice.

"Thirty-eight percent of the people we talked to didn't get paid overtime. Half the people we talked to didn't get legal breaks and so this kind of wage theft was going on" said McKay. "So CRLA and the community action board were able to show this research to the county of Santa Cruz who then gave them funding to have monthly wage clinics."

And the research work doesn't stop there, since the start of "Working For Dignity" McKay and his students are researching another big issue - housing.

"We launched last year this new project called "No Place Like Home" which is the affordable housing crisis study in Santa Cruz County and we're only about a quarter of the way through. The idea is to experience housing crisis."

Yet another issue that hits close to home for students who say their research is more than just numbers or part of their academic career.

"The research is one thing" said graduate student Ruben Espinoza. "But [you're] researching people you're actually researching stories like the real-life experience of people, that's probably the most interesting thing but also the more meaningful thing."


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