When Public Policy senior Yvonne Navarrete described her freshman year, she said, “I didn’t belong in any space.”

That is no longer true, for her or other Latinx and undocumented students. When Navarrete graduates this spring, she will leave a powerful legacy of spaces she has built and institutionalized.

Her work has been driven by her own experiences as an undocumented Latina student. Born in Juarez, Mexico, her family moved to Detroit when she was two. Throughout her childhood, she saw the inequities and injustices impacting her family and community, especially in education. That continued when she applied to college.

“Based on my experience with the application and enrollment process for U-M, I realized there were a lot of obstacles and barriers that shouldn’t be there and aren’t there for other students,” Navarrete said.

Before 2016, Navarrete said neither the Latinx nor undocumented student communities had established affinity organizations.

“There was no place for everyone to come together as one, and so there was no place for our community to advocate as one,” Navarrete said. “Latinx students were still coming and still getting involved in organizations, but not as a unit.”

During her time on campus, Navarrete founded Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, an organization built to support undocumented and DACAmented students (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and La Casa, the home for Latinx students on campus. Both were born near President Donald Trump’s election, when Latinx students collectively expressed their need to create a space exclusively for them, outside of existing initiatives. At La Casa’s first meeting, Navarrete expected about 40 attendees — 150 showed up. 

Latinx affinity groups have existed throughout the University’s recent history, but they have faded out over time. Navarrete is acutely aware of this history, and is channeling her energy to make sure they are sustainable this time. After being La Casa’s first director, she could have stayed on for a second year, but stepped down so she could mentor the next generation of Latinx leaders.

“I wanted to feel as though something didn’t depend on me,” Navarrete said. “I didn’t want it to die after so much work that we had put into it. I wanted to feel fully confident that it would continue, and with the current students leading La Casa and SCOPE, I feel extremely confident and proud.”

Key to her leadership is her role as an activist, since in addition to providing a community for Latinx and undocumented students, La Casa and SCOPE both do effective advocacy. La Casa has protested existing University diversity programs that exclude Latinx voices and fundraised for undocumented students, while SCOPE has pushed for the University to offer more support for undocumented students and more outreach for prospective undocumented students.

“For a lot of Latinx students, especially with immigrant backgrounds, we are taught that we should keep our heads down, work hard, and just focus on the ultimate goals, which is getting our degree,” Navarrete said. “And I think that is very important, and shows the value of education in our community, but it also sometimes may keep us from taking larger risks, and I felt like I had to challenge it.”

Navarrete said she has seen this how this work has reverberated on campus.

“I see students I don’t know wearing ‘Undocumented Students Welcome’ shirts or offices that in the past had invited Immigration and Customs Enforcement to campus now has a banner that says ‘Undocumented Students Welcome Here,’” Navarrete said. “And it’s just a poster, but I think that signals a culture change.”

Navarrete has channeled this experience into her academics. She is graduating from the Ford School of Public Policy with a focus area in urban education and pursuing a masters of urban education policy at Brown University next year. For her, having more undocumented students in these classes is essential.

“People don’t realize that while we are talking about DACA being rescinded, there are undocumented students in your classroom,” Navarrete said.

Navarrete has been recognized as a leader of the Latinx and undocumented community, including being honored as the Spring Commencement Speaker. But she recognizes that while she was integral in creating those spaces on campus, she is also deeply indebted to those communities.

“While I may be recognized for a lot of what La Casa and SCOPE does, none of it would have been successful or even possible without the full force of our communities,” Navarrete said. “La Casa and SCOPE will continue after I leave because our communities and our issues permeate beyond me … I alone didn’t do anything.”

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