Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2020

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This project focuses on educational and life trajectories of Central American youth in St. Louis, Missouri, who have immigrated unaccompanied from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. By tracking and telling their stories, I hope to amplify these young immigrants’ voices, and complicate others’ perceptions of their place and worth in this country. Current immigration policies and enforcement practices have made the entry process more punitive, restrictive and deadly. The immigrant experience, especially for young people, confronts many state institutions, chief among them the educational system. Institutions like schools become entry points for immigrants but can also be spaces for encounters with new forms of discipline and violence as well as potential sites for positive transformations. Based on eighteen months of research in the International Welcome Center, a public school in St Louis suburbs, this dissertation explores and chronicles the experiences of one group of predominantly Central American immigrants both in the school and in the region. In chronicling the arrival and presence of unaccompanied Central American minors, I have identified a phenomenon understudied in this particular region. These students are invisible in St. Louis metropolitan region, a region that does not perceive itself as an immigrant destination, despite its long history of refugee resettlement. Not only are conversations missing regionally, conversations on experiences of immigrants on a local or micro scale are missing in the scholarship as well. This population shift places demands on educational institutions and systems (Suarez-Orozco et. al. 2010), including English language acquisition and mental health counseling. Immigrant students are often viewed as less worthy, less capable academically, even criminal. I was expecting to find the International Welcome Center to be source of challenges for the students. Instead, I discovered a place of refuge. It is an outlier in a local system unprepared and ambivalent about the rights of Latino immigrants to be in the schools. Using life history narratives, classroom exercises, and long-term hanging out and chatting with the students, I show how young people are impacted by violence and trauma, and continue to confront borders and obstacles in their struggle to get by. Border crossings are a daily occurrence for these students, putting themselves at risk when they leave their front door and travel to school, to work, or to the store. The school itself replicated some of these challenges, given its concerns with security. However, contrary to what other studies have found, the institution was able to act as a place where immigrant youth feel a sense of safety and belonging. Through this work, I have found that within schools, individual actors seeing these students as whole, as worthy, combined with flexible school policies allowed the teachers to tailor the school environment to serve these students. Their radical flexibility makes space for the lived experiences of their students to dictate the flow of learning and engaging with the school. In understanding the challenges their students face, and seeing them as people to be understood, not bodies to be disciplined, educators are recognizing not only the students’ suffering and trauma, but their worth and contribution to the space (Benson, 2008). Perhaps without realizing, the teachers are disrupting the oppressive institutional structures that hold these students back.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Bret Gustafson

Committee Members

Rebecca Lester, J.S. Onesimo Sandoval, Ariela Schacter, Bradley Stoner,