Documenting Immigrant Families’ Separation and Reunion: Sandra Castro, Class of 2021, on her Dissertation and Her New Assistant Dean Role

Sandra Castro (Photo courtesy of Castro)

By Bonnie Eissner

The recent surge in the number of unaccompanied children and teenagers making the treacherous crossing from Mexico into the United States, many of them seeking parents who are already in the U.S., is drawing renewed attention to the southern border and national immigration policy. President Biden set a goal to reunite the separated families, but Sandra Castro (Ph.D. ’21, Social Welfare) believes more needs to be done to support them. 

“I just think it's important that we shift the focus from the border to what happens after because I think that's when the hard work begins, and not only for families, but also for schools, for local communities,” Castro said. 

For her doctoral dissertation, Castro spent years studying immigrant mothers on Long Island who came to the U.S. from Central America without their children, parented them from afar, and then finally reunited with them. 

While pursuing her study, Castro, whose own parents immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador, balanced being a mother and working as an adjunct instructor and then an administrator at Adelphi University. A newly minted Ph.D., she was recently named assistant dean of undergraduate programs in Adelphi’s College of Professional Continuing Studies.

She spoke to The Graduate Center about her new role, her research, and her advice for other busy adults who are looking to get a doctorate. 

The Graduate Center: Could you describe your dissertation project, Tears, Trauma and Transformation: Central American Mothers' Experiences of Violence and Family Reunification, and some of the takeaways?

Castro: My project looks at the experience of Central American mothers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala who came to the U.S. and were separated from their children for anywhere from two to 10 or even 17 years and later reunited with them in the U.S., specifically on Long Island. I interviewed 25 women who had come between 1976 and 2018.

Despite living through all the challenges of reunification and the violence that many of these moms endured in their home country, on their journey, and in the U.S., they were still so resilient and strong. They experienced compound disadvantages due to their undocumented status and lived through a number of hardships while separated from their children and once reunited with them as well. That really struck me. One of the connections that I made was with their support organizations. A number of organizations not only provided social services and legal services, but they also provided leadership training and spaces of support for families that were recently reunited.

I was also able to interview guidance counselors, social workers, and attorneys that work directly with mothers, and also children. Children’s experiences were very different depending on their school district. Some school districts were a lot more open and were ready to allocate the resources for new students who may be 15 years old but may have a third-grade education and don't speak English, and support families as well. Other districts were a lot more hesitant because of the overcrowding and what that meant, and there was a lot more pushback. 

GC: What drew you to this topic? 

Castro: My family is from El Salvador, and the experience of transnational mothering is something that's very familiar to me. My cousin was born here in the U.S., but because my aunt was a single mom, she took him back home to be cared for by my grandmother and my aunts. She left him there for two years, and went back to get him. The experience of transnational mothering is very common in Latin America and even around the world. There's a growing body of literature that covers the transnational mothering experience, but what hasn't been explored too much is what happens after mothers are able to reunite with their children. 

GC: How did you balance working at Adelphi, getting your Ph.D., and being a mom?

Castro: I had a lot of support from my parents, from my in-laws. I basically had free child care from loving grandparents, so I feel very privileged in that I could continue to work. I could continue to write. It took me a little bit longer than I would have wanted, but I had this extra support at home from my extended family and from my husband as well. “Just finish,” he told me. “You have to finish.”

Also, I could not have completed the dissertation without the support of my interdisciplinary dissertation committee: chair Professor Martha Bragin (GC/Hunter; Social Welfare/Social Work); committee members Professors Robert C. Smith (GC/Baruch; Sociology/Sociology, Immigration Studies, and Public Affairs) and Luis Barrios (GC/John Jay; Psychology/Latin American and Latinx Studies); and the Executive Director of the Ph.D. Program in Social Welfare Program, Professor Harriet Goodman (GC/Hunter; Social Welfare/Social Work). 

GC: What are your hopes for your new role at Adelphi University’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies?

Castro: I hope that I'll be able to meet the changing needs of adult students. I'm looking to reshape the college’s existing undergraduate programs so that they offer flexible, convenient, affordable programming, courses, and degree options for nontraditional students, but also still maintain the integrity and the quality of education that students would get in any other program at Adelphi.

GC: What advice do you have for other busy adults who are considering pursuing a Ph.D.?

Castro: My biggest piece of advice would be to find help and support and to not do it alone, to make sure that you know why you're getting into a Ph.D. because it is a lot of work. It's a commitment. Look for mentors. Look for other peers to connect with as well. Try to stay focused. 

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Submitted on: JUN 1, 2021

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