Neeta Kantamneni is no stranger to studying diversity: As a vocational and educational psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she’s built expertise in understanding career challenges faced by minorities.
Kantamneni has published research on several cultural groups, including Asian Americans, refugees and others, but recently she and her research group have turned to what Kantamneni calls “untapped potential” – undocumented immigrant students.
Known colloquially as DREAMers – named for the unpassed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act – Kantamneni said her recent work has shown that this college student population, which is estimated to be between 7,000 and 13,000 annually in the United States, has many extra challenges to overcome.
“This is a very unique population that has very unique barriers that other student populations don’t have,” Kantamneni said.
In recent months, Kantamneni and her graduate students have published a pair of research studies on the experiences and hurdles undocumented immigrants face in higher education. The first, published in The Career Development Quarterly, interviewed undocumented students in college. The in-depth interviews, Kantamneni said, brought to light how very basic some roadblocks are.
“If you’re 18 years old, you’re worried about going to college, fitting in,” she said. “These students are worried about those same things, and about things like renting a library book for class. If you don’t have an ID, you can’t do something as simple as that, or, securing transportation from point A to point B. There are so many things that you just take for granted that these students have to think about.”
Students in the case study research talked about the importance of having advocates and mentors, so Kantamneni followed with research in the Journal of Career Development that interviewed school counselors about strategies for helping these students in high school. The article also looked at some of the changes in laws, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA, which added some access for undocumented minors, including work permits.
“The counselors were creative in how they advocated for students,” she said. “They set up a lot of informal internships and informal networking and mentoring.”
Kantamneni said the amount of resilience undocumented students showed through their struggles was profound. She said this resilience makes studying this group important.
“These are youth that have a lot of promise and can provide so much back to our communities,” she said. “If we can capitalize on that potential, it would be great, especially in states like Nebraska where we’re trying to keep talented youth here.”
Kantamneni is working with Nebraska alumna Sherry Wang, now an assistant professor at Santa Clara University in California, to further research DREAMers. Wang worked with Kantamneni on the case study, and also studies minority populations.