Birgeneau receives award for aiding undocumented students

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UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau received Centro Legal de la Raza’s Visionary Leadership Award on Friday for his work in assisting undocumented students.

Centro Legal, an Oakland-based nonprofit group that provides free or low-cost bilingual legal aid, presented Birgeneau with the award at its annual gala, according to Jennifer Miller, development and communications coordinator for Centro Legal. An announcement from Centro Legal expressed that Birgeneau received the award for aiding undocumented students and helping secure a $1 million grant that would go toward financial aid for undocumented students on campus.

Birgeneau said that among the many recognitions he has received in his life, receiving the Visionary Leadership Award is especially pleasing because the award recognizes work done for the most disadvantaged group of students at UC Berkeley.

“I’ve always had a particular interest in helping students who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds … I’ve been a tremendous admirer of them for their courage and determination,” Birgeneau said.

According to Miller, the selection process involved a special events committee, through which anyone on the board or staff of Centro Legal can make suggestions for possible awardees. Birgeneau has been very active in the fight for undocumented students and was a clear choice, Miller said.

“I don’t know who nominated me — (the award) came as a complete surprise,” Birgeneau said.

One of Birgeneau’s most notable achievements for undocumented students is the securing of The Dreamers Fund in December, a $1 million scholarship donated in part by the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund that would go toward boosting financial aid for undocumented students. The grant made UC Berkeley one of the first public campuses in the state to begin a scholarship specifically for undocumented students.

The chancellor was also directly involved in initiating the Undocumented Student Program, which provides holistic support services, such as academic counseling, to undocumented students, according to Meng So, coordinator for the Undocumented Student Program.

The campus hired So in September to lead the Undocumented Student Program as a result of a recommendation made by the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Undocumented Students in 2011.

As chancellor, Birgeneau has publicly advocated for the DREAM Act, which allows qualified undocumented students to apply for need-based financial aid.

“We had to work very hard for many years to have the state pass AB 130 and 131 — the biggest challenge has been legal,” Birgeneau said.

AB 130, the first part of the California DREAM Act, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 and allowed qualified undocumented students to receive financial aid from private sources. AB 131, which took effect in January, allows qualified undocumented students to apply for state financial aid.

“We have one great challenge remaining, which is having the DREAM Act pass at the national level,” Birgeneau said.

Contact Christine Tyler at [email protected].