About Monica Cornejo, Ph.D.: Monica Cornejo is Assistant Professor of Interpersonal Communication in the Department of Communication, located in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, at Cornell University. Dr. Cornejo’s scholarship explores the structural barriers faced by undocumented immigrants and in particular college students, their advocacy communication strategies, and the importance of family communication to their experiences and advocacy.

Dr. Cornejo’s work has been published in prestigious journals including Health Communication, Journal of Applied Communication Research and Journal of Communication. She has received top paper awards from the Interpersonal Communication division of the International Communication Association and the Health Communication Division at the National Communication Association. As a graduate student, Dr. Cornejo co-founded the Communication and Empowerment Collaborative with Dr. Jennifer Kam at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

At UCSB, Dr. Cornejo earned a number of other accolades, including a dissertation award from the Chicano Studies Institute, and a Pre-Professoriate Fellowship. Dr. Cornejo earned both her Ph.D. and M.A. from the UCSB, her B.A. from Sonoma State University, and her Associate of Arts degree from Santa Rosa Junior College.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in interpersonal communication, health communication, and advocacy communication and begin to apply these perspectives to understanding how undocumented immigrants navigate structural barriers that affect their well-being?

[Dr. Monica Cornejo] I will begin with my personal background. As you may be able to tell from my research, I am currently undocumented with DACA status. That is the primary factor that propelled me to do this research. There is not a lot of research being conducted by members of marginalized and oppressed communities about their own communities. It changes the perspective of academic research.

I became interested in communication for several reasons. I had a mentor who was very approachable and talked to me about the communication discipline. I also thought that there was a need within the communication discipline to focus on undocumented experiences. When we think about the literature, a lot of great work is being conducted within sociology, psychology and Chicano/a studies. There is not a lot of work on undocumented immigrants and their health and wellbeing conducted in the communication discipline.

When we look at the structural barriers and undocumented immigrants’ experience, these are communicated via a host of different messages from many different actors. It is important that we understand how these messages influence undocumented immigrants and the barriers that they experience, as well as how to use different communication processes, such as advocacy, to challenge these barriers and help undocumented immigrants cope with their undocumented status and ultimately thrive.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One key focus of your work in this area has been on the experiences of undocumented college students such as those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA). Would you introduce us to this thread of your research and some of the ways you see communication as a key factor impacting undocumented youths?

[Dr. Monica Cornejo] My work focuses on understanding family and non-family communication processes and how they relate to several aspects of undocumented immigrants’ lives, such as advocacy, identity, health, and wellbeing. Among other things, the findings of my research indicate that being undocumented shapes the identities of those with that status. For example, some undocumented youth report that being undocumented is a source of empowerment and strength, whereas for other undocumented youth it creates a lack of feelings of belongingness and promotes feelings of otherness.

This shows us how undocumented status is not only detrimental but can also function as a promotive factor, such as being a source of empowerment for undocumented immigrants. That is very important, particularly now with the current immigration system. Other immigration scholars and I do not anticipate that there will be comprehensive immigration reform. If it happens, it likely will only shield younger, undocumented immigrants. That is why it is imperative to understand how these processes function because there will likely always be undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as well as other countries. I do not think we will see open borders. Empowerment among youth can also have trickle-down effects on family members. This is something I plan to explore more in future research, but I see a relationship between the two.

In light of that, my research explores the role of family and non-family communication on undocumented youth advocacy. For example, in one of my papers currently under review, my collaborators and I examine the role of family and non-family communication and youths’ advocacy strategy. When we think about advocacy, there is not just one strategy that undocumented immigrants as well as other highly marginalized and oppressed individuals can partake in, such as protests or marches. There are various strategies that they can engage in like interpersonal advocacy (such as talking one-on-one with family members) and media advocacy (such as posting things on social media in support of their in-group). Taking up this comprehensive perspective of advocacy, this paper tries to understand what motivates undocumented youth to engage in different strategies.

Our results indicate that four different types of undocumented advocators groups emerge — those who are infrequently advocating through several types of advocacy strategies, interpersonal advocators who engage in several other strategies but primarily interpersonal forms of advocacy, organizational advocators who were primarily engaged in being part of an organization either on or off campus to advocate for their in-group, and finally frequent advocators, which are students who partake at medium or high frequency in different types of advocacy.

The more undocumented students in our study observe their family members engage in undocumented advocacy themselves, and the more students saw negative media depictions of undocumented immigrants, the more likely students were to be frequent advocators compared to infrequent advocators. These findings highlight how interpersonal and mediated messages about undocumented immigrants play crucial roles in the behavior of undocumented youth.

[MastersinCommunications.com] This research you just discussed extends themes from your dissertation, “Advancing Advocacy Communication Theory: A Theory Grounded in Undocumented College Students’ Motivations and Strategies for Challenging Oppression.” Would you provide us with more background on advocacy communication and highlight some of the unique advocacy strategies employed by undocumented students?

[Dr. Monica Cornejo] My dissertation introduced ACT (Advocacy Communication Theory), which broadly proposes that undocumented immigrants can engage in different types of strategies to advocate on behalf of their immigration status. The theory proposes eight unique advocacy strategies, some of which we just discussed: interpersonal advocacy, mediated advocacy, academic advocacy, protest advocacy, political advocacy, public speaking advocacy, and organizational advocacy.

The theory takes a unique perspective in that, when we look at social movement research or collective action research, we tend to focus on the more traditional forms of advocacy, such as protesting or marching. ACT recognizes those are very important forms of advocacy but they are not the only ones. This matters because it demonstrates that undocumented immigrants, regardless of their immigration status and the oppression that they experience, are contributing to U.S. society, not only in economic and cultural ways but also through forms of advocacy that are the foundation of this country. We know that undocumented Americans are highly oppressed, but at the same time we see them advocating.

This theory did not emerge only from undocumented immigrants, but it drew from other highly marginalized communities, such as the strategies that women employed during the 1920s when they were trying to gain voting rights, as well as the strategies that Black and LGBTQ+ communities utilize to challenge oppressive systems in the U.S. The dissertation proposed this theory and then examined how these strategies are related to the health and wellbeing of undocumented immigrants. My current research, which is in some ways an application of the dissertation, aims to test this. Our preliminary findings support the idea that students employ these different types of advocacy strategies, and found that these strategies are uniquely related to the health and wellbeing of undocumented youth.

This matters from a theoretical perspective because this theory is born from the experiences of undocumented immigrants, which, in interpersonal communication, is unfortunately not often the case. In application, this work helps us understand the consequences that advocacy communication might have for undocumented youth and the types of support that either academics or people who work with undocumented immigrants like nonprofit organizations can provide undocumented immigrants. For example, we know that undocumented immigrants experience a lot of stressors just from being undocumented and receiving negative messages, but now we also know that advocating for their rights is also related to depressive and anxiety symptoms. As supporters and allies and undocumented, we need to communicate our support of these groups with an understanding of this impact on mental health.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Another example of your award-winning research in this area is the collaborative article, “The Importance of Norms and Efficacy in Predicting Undocumented College Students’ Intentions to Talk to an On-Campus Mental Health Professional,” which received a top paper award from the Health Communication Division of NCA. What are some of the barriers undocumented students face in accessing mental health care on college campuses and how do social norms and interpersonal communication influence their likelihood to do so?

[Dr. Monica Cornejo] The barriers that undocumented students face when accessing mental healthcare on their college campuses can be categorized either as structural challenges or challenges around norms and expectations. Structural challenges include colleges and universities not having sufficient mental health professionals who are culturally trained to understand the unique experiences of undocumented immigrants, as well as the lack of information on mental health among undocumented communities. This is not specific to undocumented communities: these barriers also exist for Latino communities and Black communities, for example.

Challenges around norms include undocumented students perceiving that talking to a mental health professional makes them experience a mental health stain. In other words, they perceive that talking to a mental health professional will make them feel vulnerable, limit their career opportunities, and place them at risk for hospitalization. They also worry that their parents will find out that they are talking to a mental health professional and not approve. These are some of the norms that present challenges for undocumented students’ engagement with mental health professionals.

Another challenge that undocumented youth reported in the study was their family and cultural views on mental health, which represent mental health care as unimportant and a waste of money. They describe being told to “snap out of it” and that they should not be talking to other people about their problems.

In the study you mentioned, we found that students’ perceptions of family norms were positively associated with students’ self-efficacy and communication efficacy. In other words, as their family members said, “You really shouldn’t talk about this,” this influenced their efficacy in pursuing help from a mental health professional. From an applied standpoint this is critical because, as I mentioned earlier, we see that undocumented immigrants experience a host of adverse challenges that are related to different stressors, so seeking mental health care should be a priority among undocumented communities. Unfortunately, we have these structural barriers such as lack of information about undocumented experiences among mental health professionals working at college campuses, and we also have these norms and perceptions that undocumented immigrants hold about seeking mental health treatment.

In understanding these processes, we can create different resources. One of the informational resources that we have created to address this issue was a short-animated video, which emerged from a parallel sister study based on interviews among undocumented college students about their experiences. We used themes from those interviews to create a short video on some of the stereotypes about talking to a mental health professional and provided alternative perspectives with that undocumented community focus. All of the actors within that video are undocumented youth. We hope this motivates some students to seek mental health care professional services if they are not seeking it already. We are going to test this video in future studies, [which you can explore here: https://cec.comm.ucsb.edu/videos].

[MastersinCommunications.com] As a graduate student at UCSB, you co-founded the Communication and Empowerment Collaborative with Dr. Jennifer Kam. Could you tell us a little bit about this initiative? Are you continuing your work with the Communication and Empowerment Collaborative in your role at Cornell, or do you have plans for similar initiatives there?

[Dr. Monica Cornejo] Overall, the goal of the initiative was to create a space where scholars who do work with undocumented immigrants can collaborate on different projects. My thought process in creating this initiative was to move away from academic language to disseminate our findings to those who work with undocumented communities through providing informational materials, infographics, or brief reports. Unfortunately, many academic publications are very hard to understand. I wanted to take an applied approach that made this information available to everyone in a way that they can understand.

I am still very much involved in that initiative. My co-founder and I still meet, and we share our findings on different projects. With regards to creating my own initiative at Cornell, I have struggled with that. I am very much opposed to recreating the wheel. The Communication and Empowerment Collaborative is housed within UCSB and is already serving its purpose. People know what it is. I do not think it makes sense to draw attention away from that initiative that is already established in creating one at Cornell. Perhaps in the future I will found something entirely different. For now, I do not have plans on recreating something that is already functioning and is serving many people who work with undocumented communities.

I am very excited to be part of other collaborations and initiatives. One project I am excited about deals with the unique experiences of undocumented undergraduate and graduate students at Ivy League universities. I am working on this project with an undergraduate here who is working on their honors thesis. These universities tend to have fewer undocumented students than public universities in California or Texas, for example, which changes students’ experiences. We are going to interview the students and see what unique challenges they experience, be that a lack of informational resources or not having adequate support.

For example, at Cornell we do not have an undocumented Student Resource Center, which, of course, I hope to eventually contribute to having established. We have a program coordinator staff member who works with undocumented students, but we know that undocumented students need more support than just one person. It takes a village to support them.

The other project I am starting relates to detained migrants. This is very much in its initial stages, but I think that is another area that I want my work to highlight. I hope to move more towards focusing on the experiences of detained people, particularly because being undocumented in the U.S. is not a crime, although we perceive it as a crime and the U.S. frames it as a crime. It is really a civil violation — and, I would argue, often a form of civil disobedience — that no one should be jailed for. We know that undocumented immigrants who are detained have fewer rights than murder suspects. They have no right to a trial and oftentimes no right to a lawyer. Understanding what goes on in detention centers should be a priority among scholars. Of course, there are many barriers that make that difficult.

Specifically, I want to look at two sides of this issue. On the one hand, I want to understand the experiences of detained folks. On the other hand, I also want to understand the experiences of immigration lawyers who go to these detention centers. When we look at the experiences of undocumented immigrants, we know they experience trauma and stressors, but that is only one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is how these very draconian policies and laws influence the people who support undocumented immigrants.

How does being involved in proceedings of detention, seeing people denied their basic human rights, seeing these detention centers, affect these lawyers? News on immigration issues frequently highlights how witnessing immigrants mistreated by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] impacts immigration lawyers and community members. I want to examine how these laws and policies influence U.S. citizens. It is not only a problem for undocumented immigrants, it is also a human rights issue that impacts everyone in the country.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your 2020 essay “#CommSoWEIRD: The Question of Sample Representativeness in Interpersonal Communication Research,” highlights the tendency of interpersonal communication research to focus on “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic,” or “WEIRD,” societies. Could you discuss the problematics of this bias and your recommendations for how future interpersonal communication research might aim to address it?

[Dr. Monica Cornejo] One of the key issues with focusing on WEIRD samples in interpersonal communication research, which I would argue is also an issue for other sub-disciplines as well as other disciplines, is that it biases our understanding of social phenomena by generalizing findings from a very small subset of the population to the entire population. We know that social norms, culture, socialization, and other factors create unique experiences for different groups that have different implications for their health and well-being, among other things.

To me, it is shocking the degree to which we rely on theories that are created from WEIRD samples. We should be very cautious when applying these theories or frameworks to certain groups because there are things that, by solely focusing on the sample, they have not considered, such as the role of culture, norms, laws, or policy. A theory on the experiences of white college students is not going to apply to the experience of undocumented college students because there are so many societal norms, laws, and policies that influence their experiences.

My recommendations for future interpersonal communication research to address sample representativeness would just be to recruit more diverse samples and report it in the manuscript. One of the findings that emerged in this study is that the number of participants from different backgrounds is overwhelmingly underreported in interpersonal communication. We need to be very clear and very explicit about how these findings came to be, and when we do not include groups from other backgrounds, we need to specify our work only applies to WEIRD samples.

I think it is crucial that we expand our theories to apply them to people of color and other marginalized communities, but I also think it is imperative that we create new theories that focus on non-WEIRD samples. We need new theories that are created with the goal of highlighting the unique experiences of marginalized communities. I am hopeful that, as we continue to have these conversations and as more people are becoming aware of this issue, we begin to move away from this ideology that certain groups are the “norm.” Some things may be generalizable, but we need to be very cautious in the way that we talk about how one group’s experiences set the bar or the criteria for another group’s experience.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice for students who are interested in socially and politically engaged work in interpersonal communication, health communication, or advocacy communication, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Monica Cornejo] I would tell folks to look for mentors. Not just one mentor. I think it is important to have a network of very diverse mentors who can give you different thoughts and views, not only on your work but also on how to apply your work. They should help you discover who you want to be as a scholar, in addition to helping frame and shape the research that you are doing.

The other advice I would give students is to question everything that you are given in your graduate program. Academia is changing, but it is changing slowly. More work is needed to make academia become an inclusive space. Ask questions about frameworks and theories you are introduced to. Question the sample representativeness of certain theories, the assumptions that are made within theories and frameworks, as well as the methodologies used. By changing how things are thought about in academia, we can hopefully ultimately change that space for the better.

Finally, I would advise folks to be honest with themselves about who they want to be as a scholar. As I have found now as a new assistant professor, there are a lot of norms and rules of who you should be in academia, and there is a lot of pressure to conform and go with the grain. Of course, I understand why some folks, primarily folks who are part of marginalized communities like LGBTQ+ folks, undocumented folks, or people of color, would do that because there is an incredible amount of pressure. You do not want to be attacked or stereotyped as the loud Latina, for example. But I think that being honest makes the work that we are already doing much more enjoyable and rewarding, and is also what we need to change the current academic space.

Thank you, Dr. Cornejo, for sharing your insights on the experience of undocumented college students, their advocacy communication strategies, and more!

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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.