Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine (SSOM) became the first medical program in the country to allow undocumented students in its classes this semester. Seven students started classes at the university’s Maywood Campus, marking a shift in higher education.
The SSOM, located in Maywood, Illinois, not only waived legal U.S. residency as an admission requirement, but it also offered a financial plan through a state agency to ensure that each of the student’s financial needs were met.
Dr. Mark Kuczewski, chairman of Loyola’s department of Medical Education, said Loyola has been motivated to give undocumented students their equal opportunity to apply to institutions for a long time.
In 2011, before Illinois passed its version of President Barack Obama’s DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors), Loyola was looking for ways to consider undocumented students at the undergraduate level. This discussion happened around the same time Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles inquired about undocumented applicants with impeccable credentials.
Both institutions said these students were just as capable of contributing Jesuit values of social justice as any others. However, Kuczewski said there was no way to admit the students to the SSOM until the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum was created in June 2012.
The DACA program allows undocumented immigrant students to work in the U.S. for a renewable period of two years. These students are called DREAMers, named after the DREAM Act.
Kuczewski said admitting students into medical schools before DACA was an issue because completing a residency for graduation requires a work visa, which is issued by the U.S. Department of State. This visa indicates the owner is allowed to live in or leave a country for a certain period of time.
Kuczewski also said the school found itself in “a state of limbo” when trying to move forward with allowing undocumented students to apply.
“President Obama’s creation of DACA gives the applicants a work permit and the ability to apply for a social security number,” he said. This will allow the students to complete their residency requirement.
Another obstacle undocumented students faced was paying for their education. Students with DACA status are not eligible for federal student loans. However, Loyola’s SSOM partnered with the Illinois Finance Authority to create a loan program benefiting these students.
After DACA, undocumented immigrants become eligible for enrollment at all medical schools in the U.S., but Loyola was the first to act on it. With the seven currently enrolled students, Kuczewski said Loyola’s efforts will influence other institutions and their decisions.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Kuczewski said, “ The accepted students are only the best of the best and are going to make a difference in Illinois health care.”
According to Kuczweski, after completing medical school and residency, the undocumented students are required to work four years in an underdeveloped Illinois area. All medical students in the U.S. can apply to a similar program, which allows them to get more financial aid from the government; however, for most students this program is optional, while for undocumented students is a requirement.
As with any change in policies, there are people who disagree with SSOM’s changes.
Kuczewski said some people think this is an affirmative action plot or a way to achieve a desired quota; however, he said these students earned their places in the school based off of their merit and ability.
“Of course a few contacts from outside the school and even alumni have mentioned how they do not agree with our decision for reasons that are more or less political.”
However, he said, “there are very few instances like this — only about two or three.”
In fact, most comments have been positive, Kuczewski said. Loyola’s medical students have shown their support for their DREAMer peers. A large number of Stritch students published a letter in support of the seven DACA students expected to graduate in 2018.
“We are proud of all the new students that join the SSOM community and the DREAMers are no exception,” the letter reads. “ We unequivocally support our school for living up its ideal of a ‘faith that does justice.’”
Since no social security number is needed to apply, Loyola also admits undocumented students into its undergraduate programs. Merit- based scholarship are available for these students; however, federal aid is not.
The dean of the School of Medicine was unavailable for comment.