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3 Ways Universities Can Better Support Immigrants & Students of Color

By Sadia Saifuddin October 15, 2020

As the eldest child of immigrants, I was the first person in my family to navigate the college admission process. From understanding which classes I should enroll in, to registering for the SAT, to filling out the FAFSA student aid form, there were many firsts on my way to graduating debt-free from UC Berkeley.

The Great Equalizer

The journey to where I am today has been anything but easy. And that sounds cliché, until you ask anyone who comes from a low-income family, is a woman of color or an immigrant, or from any other underrepresented group. Attaining a college education has evolved into an incredibly competitive pursuit; the average GPA of applicants accepted to the University of California network of schools is usually over 4.0.

Students are competing against peers that have the financial resources to enroll in expensive SAT prep courses that can cost upwards of $3,000. Then there are the private tutors, and the expensive summer programs, and the private college counselors. Wealth has always provided an advantage to a small segment of our population. As participants in capitalism, it’s a bitter pill many of us to swallow. But what happens when quality education — the great equalizer — becomes out of reach?

 A young man and woman sitting in a computer lab.

Education is the great equalizer.

The college admissions process was completely new to me and my family, so I actively networked and sought out mentors, gathering nuggets of wisdom, advice, and strategies that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. When I graduated from college, I wanted to pay it forward by serving as a mentor myself.

In 2014, my partner and I contacted our local mosque and hosted a free workshop for over 100 parents and families that wanted to learn about the college admission process. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We knew we had discovered a deep need in our local community, and we were well positioned to solve the problem.

Since 2014, we have hosted more than 50 workshops and webinars, published free content, and have mentored hundreds of students in middle school and college. We teach students about habit development, academic planning, and extracurricular strategies, as well as how to write impactful college application essays. We have partnered with four K-12 schools to develop their college preparation strategy, and we’re working on an online group coaching offering that will provide grassroots peer-to-peer learning and increase access to personalized coaching.

How Can Colleges and Universities Support Students of Color?

The educational journey is a pipeline, and students need support at each level to optimize success. At, our customers and community are thought leaders and are the first to experiment with new technologies to support their students, alumni, and staff. The three actions outlined below are low-hanging fruit for any university when thinking about their diversity efforts.

  1. Invest in Retention Efforts:
    Once a student successfully navigates high school and begins their college journey, the next barrier they face is imposter syndrome. They wonder if they belong on campus, or if their acceptance was a mistake. Retention programs such as CE3 (The Centers for Education, Equity, and Excellence) at UC Berkeley, or the Student Resource Centers at UC Riverside address this need. Students seek out these centers to find peer support and culturally competent resources. As a Regent Alumna of the University of California Board of Regents, I have personally witnessed the power that retention programs have as both a recruiting and retention tool.
  2. Measure and Report on the Effectiveness of Diversity Programs:
    Diversity and Inclusion are currently en vogue, but student leaders and education advocates have been blowing the whistle on the total lack of diversity on campuses, especially in our public schools, for decades. It is not enough to have a picture of a student of color on your website, and it is not enough to hold a few conferences on the topic. To ensure that your university student population is representative of the broader community, we need a) financial investment and b) active monitoring and reporting on outcomes. We know that what gets measured, gets managed. We need to increase accountability in this area and actively report on our progress.
  3. Support Basic Needs Programs On and Off Campus:
    Basic Needs programs provide food, housing, mental health, and financial management support to students. I spent the entirety of my term as the student regent focused on designing and operationalizing basic needs programs across the University of California. Students on campus are struggling with homelessness, living out of their cars, or skipping meals to afford their textbooks. Many students that receive financial aid send their money back home to support their families, and struggle to survive on campus themselves. If you think that your university isn’t dealing with these issues, think again. With the stigma around poverty, students are not likely to raise their hands or ask for help. The result is that too often, universities think they don’t have this problem, when in reality it exists just under the surface.
  4. Student celebrating graduation while holding diploma

    The educational journey is a pipeline, and students need support at each level to optimize success.

    What to Expect When You’re Expecting
    (To Change the System)

    When I began scaling these efforts across the University of California, multiple regents told me privately that discussing these issues was poor PR. They’re not wrong. No university wants to admit that students paying thousands of dollars in tuition are homeless or hungry. But universities are in the education business, not the PR business. Every remarkable product begins with someone identifying a painful problem. We need courage to admit that our current system is not supporting students in a way that supports our diversity goals.

    If your university is serious about diversity and retention, think about the invisible students that are living on the margins. Start there.

    Read more about how schools can make classrooms more inclusive, diverse, and reflective of the world around us.

    About the Author

    Sadia Saifuddin, Manager at

    Sadia is a technologist, speaker, entrepreneur, and education enthusiast. She leads nonprofit product launch strategy at, covering go-to-market, pricing and packaging, and market research. Sadia has spent the last five years growing The Success Company and designing products and services to help students, families, and educational institutions navigate the college admissions process. She’s passionate about writing, learning, and deep work.