By Steve Seepersaud
Vanessa Luna ’14 has dedicated her life after graduation to supporting the unique needs of undocumented students and families in the K-12 system. She co-founded ImmSchools in 2017, an organization that partners with educators, schools and school districts to build safe and welcoming learning spaces. For her leadership in these efforts, Luna was recently named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in education. Luna grew up in New York after coming to the United States from Peru as a 10-year-old.
"As a student in my middle, high school and college years, I was not out about my status," she said. "When I was growing up, there were no safe spaces for me or my parents inside schools. Unfortunately, educators didn’t have the tools to have the conversation about resources and the rights of immigrant students. My high school counselor helped me despite having limited knowledge on supporting undocumented students through the college application process."
“My experience taught me resilience, that knowledge is power and also that educational equity must not be aligned on whether or not you have a Social Security number."
As a high schooler, Luna was attracted to Binghamton University because of the quality and opportunities it provided, and its low cost. Coming from a working-class family, a private or out-of-state school was out of her reach. Although Binghamton University is relatively affordable, paying for an education wouldn't be easy, and she faced a hurdle that many of her peers didn't.
"I couldn't receive financial aid because of my immigration status," Luna said. "I paid for Binghamton with cash, limited private scholarships and a private loan. My parents took on several jobs to ensure I could pay for college and graduate. I’m truly a product of my parents’ sacrifices and dreams. At Binghamton, I never talked about my status except when financial aid counselors asked why we were paying for college with cash."
New York state subsequently passed the Dream Act so future students won't have the same trouble accessing aid. At Binghamton, Luna earned a bachelor’s degree in history and was in the first cohort to minor in education and immigration studies. She was involved with the Boys and Girls Club in Binghamton and the Johnson City Mentoring Program, which inspired her to apply for Teach for America. In 2012, she obtained a work permit through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and taught with Teach for America in Los Angeles and New York City.
"I learned so much as a teacher,” she said. "It is truly the most powerful job in the world. As I served in high immigrant communities, I witnessed the similar challenges I experienced in schools and quickly realized we needed to do more for our undocumented families.”
That was the impetus for ImmSchools. Luna is based in Brooklyn, and her co-founder is in Texas; the organization is growing in both locations with plans to expand elsewhere. In its first year, ImmSchools reached more than 1,000 educators and nearly 1,000 students and families. She says the “30 Under 30” distinction has boosted efforts to spread the word about ImmSchools.
“We came to this country to seek better opportunities," Luna said. "Ultimately, it's about all of us understanding that immigrant justice and educational equity are intertwined issues, and we have to work on them in an intersected way. The [Forbes] recognition is really a recognition of our undocumented and immigrant community and what we're capable of regardless of the injustices we continue to face."