"Is this even worth it"?: Examining Mental Health Among Undocumented College Students in California
Martha Morales Hernandez

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of California, Irvine

Primary Discipline

Previous research establishes that undocumented college students experience emotional distress related to their immigration status. While this work establishes a link between immigration status and mental health, we have little knowledge on how undocumented students promote their psychological wellbeing. My dissertation project extends prior research on the mental health of undocumented students by employing an asset-based approach. I focus on acts of resistance to capture the actions taken to resist structural marginalization. My dissertation addresses the following research questions: 1) How does legal vulnerability affect undocumented students? mental health, defined as both emotional distress and psychological wellbeing? 2a) How does legal vulnerability shape students? ability to engage in resistance? 2b) How does engaging in resistance inform students? mental health? 3) To what extent can engaging in different acts of resistance buffer the relationship between legal vulnerability and mental health? 4) How do institutional contexts inform the relationships between legal vulnerability, mental health, and resistance? I draw on 66 in-depth interviews and 1,277 survey responses collected with undocumented college students across three of California?s public higher education systems to examine the relationship between mental health, resistance, and institutional context. I find that institutional context influences the acts of resistance that students employ. However, the usage of acts of resistance have diverging effects on overall mental health outcomes. Examining this complex process between legal vulnerability and mental health will help identify potential mechanisms through which wellbeing and academic outcomes can be mutually improved.
About Martha Morales Hernandez
Martha Morales Hernandez? is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at UC Irvine. She received her BA and MA in Sociology from UCI. Her research agenda aims to identify ways to better support and promote the educational success and wellbeing of undocumented college students. Her dissertation project explores emotional distress and psychological wellbeing among undocumented college students in California and examines the actions students take to resist structural marginalization. She is also a founding member of the Undocumented Student Equity Project (USEP) which is dedicated to conducting research to inform institutional policies and practices that will advance equity and inclusion for undocumented college students. As part of this team, she has co-authored seven peer-reviewed journal articles, all of which make critical theoretical contributions about the specific ways that immigration status functions as a source of social inequality. The project is also dedicated to identifying ways to better support and promote the educational success and wellbeing of undocumented college students. Additionally, she has worked closely with the UCI Dream Center to use research findings to inform program development, including the creation of a Scholar-in-Residence program and the Dream Project Fellowship, both of which support the professional development of undocumented students on campus. Currently, she is Co-PI on a project that will translate her dissertation research into a toolkit that campuses can use to promote wellbeing among undocumented students.

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