Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



While research on motivation in second language acquisition is copious and the interest in undocumented youth within the education field is growing, there is a need to closely examine the intersection of being both undocumented and an English Learner (EL) and how this intersection often limits ELs, especially those in underserved schools. Using ethnographic methods, this dissertation documents the educational experiences of thirty-one Spanish-speaking ELs in a predominately of color, urban, working-class high school in the southeastern United States. EL participants were ages fourteen through twenty with varying non-citizen immigrant statuses. Semi-structured interviews and field notes were collected during the 2017-2018 school year, with follow-up interviews conducted eight months after nine participants had left high school. This study uses a desire-centered theoretical approach (Tuck, 2009), which highlights the complexities and contradictions of lived experience instead of focusing exclusively on the damage and trauma that often frames marginalized voices as depleted and helpless. The study categorized the desires that emerged into “intertwined” and “vital” desires. Intertwined desires include undocumented ELs yearning to learn English and graduate high school to gain social capital in the United States and as a contingency plan in case of deportation to their native countries. Additionally, undocumented ELs desire more inclusive school spaces where they are not alienated because of language and nationality differences. As a result of these gaps in academic and emotional support, ELs fostered solidarity and peer mentoring. Vital desires include safety, connection, and guidance. Since limited English abilities and undocumented status are often barriers to college and career opportunities, undocumented ELs desire guidance as they make decisions about life after high school and stronger connections with peers and family as they contend with the uncertainty of a non-legal status. The study recommends investing in healing-centered, culturally-sustaining curriculums and highly-trained educators among other interventions for policy and practice.



Committee Chair

Weinstein, Susan