Campus hires new counselor for undocumented students

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As a part of efforts to aid undocumented students on campus, UC Berkeley officials have created a new half-time counseling position to provide undocumented students with academic support and resources to get financial aid and legal assistance.

Meng So, the campus’s first undocumented student program coordinator, began in the position this fall, which arose from recommendations from UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s task force on undocumented students in spring 2011.

“My goal is to have my students feel like they have a home on campus, a person they can go to when they have any questions or concerns, whatever it is they need,” So said.

There are about 200 undocumented students on campus, So said. He added that he has met “close to all” of them.

Jesus Chavez, an undocumented senior at UC Berkeley and co-chair of a student group for undocumented students, said that having a counselor specifically for undocumented students gives those students a centralized place to receive guidance on financial aid, internships and housing.

“Sometimes, you want to talk to a counselor but you don’t know if you can trust them because of your situation,” Chavez said. “Knowing that Meng is there for undocumented students, there’s that trust. I can ask him about concerns that I have, and he can connect me to people to help me.”

So graduated from UC Berkeley in 2010 and, after earning a master’s degree from UCLA the following year, came back to work as an academic counselor at the Student Life Advising Services office on campus. In his new position, So said he identifies with his students because of his own experiences as an immigrant and a first-generation, low-income college student.

“My students and my students’ families are the strongest people I know, and I see a lot of myself in them,” So said. “There’s an intersection of our experiences.”

The position’s salary will be paid through the chancellor’s discretionary endowment fund, according to Fabrizio Mejia, director and academic counselor at SLAS. So will be paid $28,500 for each of his two half-time positions.

So’s new position was recommended by the chancellor’s advisory committee on undocumented students in 2011. Some of the recommendations by the committee, including the creation of a lending library to ease the burden of textbook costs, have already been implemented. Others, including the creation of a resource center at the Cesar E. Chavez Student Center, will be launched this academic year.

As the undocumented student coordinator, So will also help undocumented students navigate procedures to be able to obtain public financial aid beginning in January — a result of the California DREAM Act signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October.

“Prior to (the California) DREAM Act, they were paying tuition on their own, working under-the-table jobs while being full-time students,” So said. “The California DREAM Act has changed the landscape — now, if they have full financial need, they’re eligible to have all their tuition covered.”

Contact Caroline Murphy at [email protected].