Official UO advocate for undocumented students draws from life experience to assist students

Jane Irungu has been at UO for six years. She is now the point person for students affected by the U.S. administration’s immigration ban. (Courtesy of Jane Irungu)

Jane Irungu is passionate about education. She is passionate about education because, in part, she was discouraged from obtaining one. Now undocumented and international students at the University of Oregon will benefit from her struggle.

Last week, Irungu was named the point person for undocumented students who might be approached by immigration officials. The position was created to serve students who are afraid of the recent immigration ban currently being contested in court.

“The university wanted to make a statement that we serve all students,” Irungu said about her new position. “We are supportive of our international students. We are supportive of our undocumented DACA students.”

International and undocumented students face many challenges coming to the US. Now they have a clear, confidential place to help them connect with resources they might need.

“My focus is on supporting students,” Irungu said. “This position is making sure we are pulling our resources together but also making sure students know that the university has a point person they can talk to. If I don’t have the answer I can direct them to the right person or the right resource.”

Irungu was born in Kenya. She is the daughter of a modestly educated man and the oldest of 12 children. Her community focused on supporting men. Not even her grandfather understood her desire to go to school.

“My grandfather wanted me to be married after elementary school,” Irungu said. “He didn’t understand why I should go to high school … but my father said, ‘No, she has to go to school.’ ”

“I remember my dad saying that, because he didn’t have any boys, that we were his boys,” Irungu said. “[Because] I was supported by my parents to go to school, how that transformed me and my community, I’m very very very passionate about education.”

Irungu completed six years of high school and three years of college, graduating from the Kenyatta University in Nairobi in 1986 before becoming principal of a high school.

School in Kenya was difficult. The curriculum was highly structured and only the best would move on. Rudimentary technology wasn’t available so students’ research and term papers were all written by hand.

Irungu ran a school under these conditions. Teachers and administrators had no kind of online database. All of their notes and memos were delivered and written by hand. Only people doing secretarial work used typewriters.

Until she came to the U.S. in 1997, Irungu had never used a computer. When she was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, she had to ask students to help her check her email.

In order to compensate for her lack of knowledge, Irungu took every computer and typing class available to her. Within a year, she was “100 percent proficient,” she said. Even now, she can’t believe that she ever couldn’t type.

She said the technological barrier was high but the culture shock had a longer-lasting effect, an issue international students often face. Constantly answering questions about who you are and where you come from can be overwhelming, Irungu said.

She says these personal experiences have equipped her better than most people on campus to assist international students.

“I have walked that road, I have worked with faculty,” she said. “I have been in a classroom where I am the only international student.”

Paired with her own life experience, Irungu’s scholarly work focuses on struggles facing international students. She pointed to a shelf that covered an entire wall of her office, saying that all of that work, her dissertation, term papers and research, has all focused on international student success.

Administration creating a new position to assist international and undocumented students will not relieve all of their problems, but Irungu hopes it provides support. She says the support she received from her family, teachers and professors drives her to continue doing the same for students.

“My desire is always to see a student come in and then walk out successful. When I see them walk off the stage … that is my ultimate reward,” she said. “That’s why I’m passionate. It’s a story of transformation for me.”

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