Group photo of students who attended one of our Breaking Barriers events

About Breaking Barriers

Community & sense of belonging.

Our Purpose

Bryn Mawr is dedicated to serving the next generation of leaders in society— leaders like you. At Bryn Mawr, we aim to provide you with a supportive environment, allowing you to explore your interests and passions, cultivating them into meaningful change. A supportive environment depends on its community as it allows us to learn from one another and build lifelong relationships. Likewise, Breaking Barriers focuses on creating, enhancing, and sustaining mentorship, programming, and support for first-generation, low-income, and undocumented students.

In Fall 2017, Breaking Barriers began as a mentorship program created by former students Yeidaly Mejia'19 and Alex Berndt'19 to support and empower first-generation and/or limited-income (FGLI) students. Today, we continue to build and expand on this thoughtful work through collaborative efforts with students, faculty, and staff, including the development of accessible programming and resources for undocumented students who are highly likely to identify as FGLI and face similar (or somewhat similar) circumstances.

In doing so, we aim to provide Scholars with community and a sense of belonging at Bryn Mawr College.

To be FGLI/Undocu+

Students who share the FGLI and Undocu+ identities comprise roughly 20% of the 1,300+ undergraduate student population here at Bryn Mawr.

At Bryn Mawr, the term “first-generation” or “first-gen” is defined as a student who is the first in their immediate family to attend a four-year college. In other words, a student where neither parent attended a four-year college (this does not include step-parents). The student and their siblings (if applicable) would then be considered as the first-generation in their family to attend college. This includes international students whose parents did not attend a four-year college in their home country.

The term “limited-income” refers to an individual coming from a lower socioeconomic status in which they and their family have access to a limited number of financial resources.

The term “undocumented” refers to people who are not citizens or Permanent Residents in the country they reside in; who do not hold a visa to reside in that country, and who have not applied for legal residency in that country. In this case, undocumented refers to people who are not U.S. citizens and have not completed the process and been approved to legally reside in the U.S. Additionally, a person can become undocumented if they continue to reside in the U.S. after the date their visa is set to expire.

The term "undocumented+" refers to people who are undocumented as well as those who hold DACA or TPS status and/or who come from mixed immigration status families (people who hold U.S. citizenship and who have family members who do not). While each group may have a different status and encounter its own set of experiences, all groups are likely to face similar (or somewhat similar) circumstances.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
A program announced on June 12, 2012, by President Barack Obama that is to protect individuals who qualify from deportation and give them a work permit for 2 years. Individuals who are approved for the program are DACAmented. 

  • The program is currently not accepting applications for first-time applicants however, current DACAmented individuals may apply to renew their status.
  • Deferred Action does not provide lawful status.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
A temporary immigration status granted to nationals of certain countries due to armed conflict or natural disaster. For the full list of countries currently designated for TPS, click here.

U.S. Legislation That Informs Our Practices

This section outlines some of the most important U.S. legislation and programs that influence an undocumented student's educational experience and career aspirations. As an institution committed to preparing students for a life filled with purpose, I have for you below some of our current practices and initiatives that are in response to the legislation and program pieces listed.

The right to receive a basic education in the U.S. regardless of citizenship was determined through the U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1982, Plyer v. Doe. A brief description of the case is provided below.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a State may not deny access to a basic public education to any child residing in the State, whether present in the U.S. legally or otherwise. Moreover, schools are responsible for extending the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to undocumented immigrant children. (Research guides: A latinx resource guide: Civil rights cases and events in the United States: 1982: Plyler v. Doe., n.d.)

Since the decision of Plyer v. Doe in 1982 allows for undocumented individuals to receive a K-12 education in the U.S., they and their parents are also protected under the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that affords parents the right to have access to their children’s education records, the right to seek to have the records amended, and the right to have some control over the disclosure of personally identifiable information from the education records. The FERPA statute is found at 20 U.S.C. § 1232g and the FERPA regulations are found at 34 CFR Part 99.U.S. Department of Education

The FERPA Act considers an eligible student to be a student who turns 18 years old, or enters a postsecondary institution at any age. This means that once an undocumented individual turns 18 years old or enters a postsecondary institution, the rights under FERPA transfer from the parents to the student. “FERPA applies to all educational agencies or institutions (e.g., schools) that receive funding under any program administered by the Department [of Education]…Private postsecondary schools, however, generally do receive such funding and are subject to FERPA”.

Bryn Mawr College is a private institution receiving funding from the Department of Education and therefore subject to FERPA. For more information on Bryn Mawr’s practices concerning FERPA, click here. Moreover, we have a comprehensive list of policies and practices dedicated to protecting our students' rights to privacy and confidentiality which can be found on The Pensby Center's DACA and Undocumented Student page, here.

Part of the college experience includes finding and applying for paid internships and opportunities that enhance one’s academic interests and professional development. However, the Immigration Reform & Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 prevents individuals from being compensated for their work without legal work authorization.

The IRCA requires employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status which made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit undocumented immigrants.

Although the IRCA does not allow for undocumented individuals to be hired for compensated work, undocumented individuals can qualify for academic scholarships and fellowship opportunities. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a “scholarship is generally an amount paid or allowed to a student at an educational institution for the purpose of study. A fellowship grant is generally an amount paid or allowed to an individual for the purpose of study or research”. Because scholarship and fellowship funds are dedicated toward a student’s education, they are not considered as a form of compensation.

But what happens to undocumented individuals seeking to enter the workforce?

Although, employers are unable to knowingly hire a person without work authorization, there are a few legal ways undocumented individuals can make an earning such as becoming an independent contractor. Immigrants Rising—an organization dedicated to providing information, resources and support for the undocumented community—has developed, A Guide to Working For Yourself which outlines a few ways undocumented individuals can earn a living in the U.S.. This is a helpful guide for those interested in learning more, especially young individuals who are just starting out.  

That said, Breaking Barriers works closely with campus partners on identifying and sharing information on scholarships and fellowship opportunities to our undocumented+ community. Moreover, through our Navigating Pathways group, we offer career and professional development-oriented workshops and discussion for undocumented, DACA and TPS students to equip them with the knowledge and understanding to forge their own path.