For Vanessa Luna (MA ’16), recently named to the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education — the magazine’s annual roundup of young leaders who are making a difference in their field — the journey has been highly personal.
Growing up undocumented in New York, Luna experienced firsthand the anxiety and fear felt by many students who are undocumented or have parents who are undocumented. Nonetheless, she persevered — despite what Luna now recognizes as a lack of support in the educational system, she went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college, then entered the LMU/Teach For America Partnership program in Los Angeles.
Through her experience as a middle school teacher while enrolled in the program, Luna concluded that she and many other educators lacked the resources to successfully advocate for her students and their families — including one whose father was detained and deported, eventually causing her to leave Luna’s classroom. “I thought there would be more support for immigrant students, undocumented students, and students in mixed-status families,” she says. “But there were no concrete systems in place.”
Luna decided to delve into the implications of that lack of support. For her master’s thesis, which earned her LMU’s Education Researcher of the Year Award, Luna interviewed immigrant students, families and teachers on the impact of the fear of deportation. In the process, she learned the importance of the immigrant story found in every one of her students and their families and how much it meant to many of them that they finally had a teacher who had grown up under similar circumstances. “I realized what an asset my experiences were as an educator, and that I had to use them to leverage change,” Luna says. “That paved the way for me to do the work I’m doing now, and that I will continue to do for the rest of my career.”
In 2017, Luna co-founded ImmSchools, a nonprofit organization that partners with K-12 schools and educators to support undocumented students and families through professional development, immigrant-centered workshops, and immigrant-friendly policies. In the two years since, ImmSchools has trained approximately 1,000 educators to support the needs of 30,000 students and their families nationwide. The organization has also forged partnerships with school districts, charter schools, and educational organizations to implement systemic changes and enforce policies that ensure safe and welcoming spaces that allow immigrant and undocumented students to reach their fullest potential. “The response has been tremendous, and it shows the great need for this work,” Luna says. “Educators are yearning for these programs.”
Luna’s national leadership extends beyond ImmSchools. As part of the first cohort of DACA TFA teachers in Los Angeles, she became a founding member of TFA’s national DACA Advisory Board, which helps to shape policies and support systems around undocumented students and DACAmented TFA teachers (teachers with DACA status), whose ranks have grown to nearly 250. Last year, Luna completed a six-month fellowship with Camelback Ventures, which provides seed funding, coaching and networking opportunities for early-stage entrepreneurs — particularly leaders of color and women. She currently holds a Roddenberry Fellowship, which supports activists, organizers, leaders and change makers who are working to make the U.S. more inclusive and equitable.
In all of her work, she continues to draw on the preparation she received at LMU. “That was a pivotal time for me during which I saw what was needed and went about figuring out what that should look like,” Luna recalls. “As an institution that emphasizes social justice, LMU welcomed and supported what I wanted to do in a way that I might not have experienced at another institution.”
Luna, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Lima, Peru when she was 10, says she is inspired by the resilience and tenacity of the undocumented community, including her own parents. “They came here in pursuit of opportunity and a better life,” she says. “That spirit is often lost in the discussion of this topic. You see parents who, despite challenges to their humanity, get up every day and take their kids to school because they will do anything for them. That’s an incredible act of love, and as educators, it’s our responsibility to support them.”
If interested in learning more about ImmSchools, please visit immschools.org.