As thousands of University of Michigan students prepare to graduate this weekend, the achievement is particularly special for the Navarrete family.

Alejandro and Yvonne Navarrete came to the United States from northern Mexico with their mother and younger brother as undocumented immigrants when they were just 4 and 2 years old. Their father, who migrated from Juarez, Mexico, prior to their arrival, had settled in southwest Detroit with the hopes of providing a more economically stable life for his family.

The siblings will be at Michigan Stadium on Saturday for the 2019 Spring Commencement.

Photo of Yvonne Navarette
Yvonne Navarrete

Yvonne Navarrete, who will receive a bachelor’s degree in public policy, was selected as one of four students to speak during the ceremony before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her address.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” says Navarrete. “I remember being in the fifth grade and thinking, ‘This is going to help me when I’m in college,’ but not even knowing remotely what it meant to even apply.”

According to the report “Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students,” approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, and just 5-10 percent of them enroll in college.

While that low number can be attributed to systemic roadblocks, other contributors likely add to undocumented students’ misconception that college isn’t a realistic option for them.

“The application process itself was really confusing,” Yvonne Navarrete says. “When I would ask admissions officers and financial aid officers questions, they looked at me really confused and that was really discouraging. It took a lot of blind trust to continue the process of applying and enrolling here.”

Once on campus, she wasted little time working to create a campus community that provides support and resources to undocumented students. She never gave herself permission to be self-centered in her personal pursuit of happiness, rather became mindful of her potential and responsibility to make the campus a better place for future students like herself.

Navarrete was a part of the group that founded La Casa, an organization of students and faculty at the university that works to support and facilitate a positive environment for all Latinx students on campus.

She also was an active member of the Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, an organization that strives to support and serve the campus’ undocumented and “DACAmented” students, a reference to those that are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“I wanted to get involved in things that really mattered to me,” she says. “I wanted to focus on work that would bring me joy and that made me feel like I have a purpose.”

In part due to these groups’ advocacy and activism, the university launched a website to serve as a resource for undocumented students, including those who have DACA status. It provides undocumented students with supportive services, community support, external funding and parent information.

Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers also assigned Hector Galvan, program manager in the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, to provide resources and serve as the direct liaison to the undocumented and DACA community.

As the fastest growing ethnicity on campus — moving from 5.5 percent of the undergraduate student body in 2015-16 to 6.8 percent in 2017-18 — the Latinx community is gaining momentum and has contributed to an increase in the number of underrepresented minorities in the 2019 freshman class.

Navarrete has been praised for her courage and commitment to having a lasting impact on U-M.

“Yvonne found strategic and effective ways to work with administrators, faculty and students to make a difference bringing communities together,” says Catalina Ormsby, acting director of the Center for Educational Outreach. “She continuously supported students, and invested in mentoring the next generation of student leaders who will continue to make a difference in our campus.”

Sharing his sister’s passion for improving college access for undocumented and low-income students, Alejandro Navarrete says he admires his sister’s intentional leadership.

“She focused on substantive progress that would allow for future capitalization by our communities,” he says. “This was wisdom that was passed down to her from mentors she sought out and has since passed it on to those she has led. It has been my honor to share her name and work with her these past years at U-M.”

During her commencement speech, Navarrete says, she plans to share with her classmates that immigrants, undocumented or not, are people with dreams, hopes, aspirations and loved ones, who want to help make the communities they are a part of better.

In the fall, she will head to Brown University to pursue a master’s degree in urban education policy. Her brother, who earned his bachelor’s degree in economics, will continue working at the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to indigent clients, and plans to apply to graduate school.

Despite the risk that comes with publicly stating she is undocumented, Yvonne Navarrete says she hopes to be an example for those students who will come after her.

“I want undocumented students in middle schools and high schools to see me and know that they belong at U-M and places like U-M,” she says. “They don’t have to feel confused or discouraged. I want them to know that they belong here.”