Advocating for the Invisible and Voiceless: A Q&A with Dr. Eric Chen

Dr. Eric Chen

Dr. Eric Chen is an associate professor of Counseling Psychology.  He recently discussed his latest research on the educational and career pursuits of legal and undocumented immigrant students.

What motivated you to conduct research on undocumented immigrants and the DACA legislation?
I was born and raised in Taiwan and came to the United States to study as an international student. My experience of applying for a green card, as well as the immigration process itself, was quite stressful. I feel empathetic toward immigrants who have to travel to a foreign country, adjust to a different culture, and start a new life. The acculturative stress of immigrants has been well documented in the psychology literature.

When I was teaching a doctoral practicum class almost a decade ago, a student in the class shared that one of her clients was an undocumented college student and she struggled with how to help given the lack of legal protection and limited resources available to undocumented immigrants. I then began to realize that undocumented immigrants were invisible, voiceless and vulnerable in our society.

Back then and even today when we talk about the needs of immigrants, we often overlook some important distinctions between undocumented immigrants and their legal counterparts. Because of the lack of legal protections, undocumented immigrants constantly live in fear that they may be deported. They don’t know if they will remain to be here in the U.S. tomorrow, next month, or next year. With that uncertainty, it is difficult for anyone to build a future.

I was particularly interested in the experiences and resilience of the “DREAMers” – undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. How do their perceptions of themselves change once they realize their lack of legal status? Against a future of uncertainty, how does this awareness affect their social relationships, academic performances, and well-being?

Research has shown that these students tend to drop out of high school because of limited educational and vocational opportunities due to their legal status. Without a work permit, they tend to be hired and potentially exploited for low wage jobs in the underground economy. As a counseling psychologist and as an immigrant myself, I felt compelled to give voice to this population in my roles as an educator and researcher.

So you feel it is a population that goes largely unnoticed and you feel compassionate because they are vulnerable and deserve advocacy?
Indeed. Given I am a faculty member at Fordham, which emphasizes the social justice mission, it is important for me to contribute to Fordham’s Jesuit mission and advocate on behalf of those who are invisible and voiceless in our society.

Currently, my research team and I are conducting a qualitative research study about DACA DREAMers. Specifically, I want to understand the experiences of undocumented immigrant college students’ perspectives of self, interpersonal relationships, educational and career pursuits after they have received temporary legal status through the federal DACA legislation. I am also interested in how they negotiate their relationship with their siblings and family members who remain undocumented.

Is there anything in particular that comes to mind that you are hoping to learn from the project?

  • How does the whole family deal with the fact some children in the family are eligible under DACA to pursue their dreams?
  • How do do these DREAMers negotiate the associated reactions or expectations from other family members who remain undocumented? For example, would they feel pressured to find a reasonably well-paying job to support the rest of their family?
  • How might those DREAMers’ identity – personal, social or cultural – evolve over time?
  • How do they maintain or negotiate their identity in their relationships with others?

Given that undocumented immigrant parents may conceal their lack of legal status out of fear that they may be deported, it’s reasonable to assume that these parents may limit their interactions with their children’s school. This fear, coupled with their language barrier, and the lack of understanding about the educational system in the United States, may prevent the parents from being involved in their children’s schooling. So I would like to understand the process in which undocumented immigrant college students gather the information they needed to go to college.

How did they navigate that all on their own?
Indeed, without the input from their parents. American parents who expect their children to go to college are likely to be involved during the process of applying to college, such as taking the SAT, and planning college campus tours. Undocumented immigrant students are not likely to have that kind of support or resources. How did they navigate the whole process of applying to college? Perhaps through their experience we would be able to offer implications for policy makers, educational staff, and guidance counselors so that more DREAMers may be supported to go to college.

You mentioned your feelings of wanting to contribute to Fordham’s belief in social justice. What value do you think there is in being in a place like GSE?
I do think that one unique feature of Fordham’s mission is that we care for the whole person. We are interested in not just supporting students’ intellectual well-being, but also in their psychological well-being and their responsibility as a future teacher, counselor, school leader, psychologist, as well a member of our society.

Their character…
Exactly. What is special about Fordham’s Jesuit mission that focuses on social justice and service – “men and women for others” – is that we should not just think about ourselves, but about how we can support and nurture our relationships with others in the personal and professional contexts. We all are called to fulfill the responsibility as change agents to promote social justice through our daily interactions and work, services, teaching or research – one person at a time, one day a time, and one study at a time.

Our doctoral and master’s programs focus on the development of multicultural competencies. Given that Fordham is housed in NYC – a racially and culturally diverse international city – it is important for us to understand individuals from all walks of life, in terms of social, cultural, linguistic, sexual, and economic diversity. I think that is a distinct feature of GSE and our counseling and counseling psychology doctoral programs.

What is, if you can think of one, the best book you ever read?
I would say probably The Little Prince, which I read as a child and a few decades later its central themes still resonate with me. For example, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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