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Authors discuss their new book on the Chicano experience in higher education

In The Chicana/o/x Dream: Hope, Resistance and Educational Success (Harvard Education Press), students are center stage. Interviews with them are the basis for the authors’ suggestions — about community colleges and four-year institutions.

Gilberto Q. Conchas, the Wayne K. and Anita Woolfolk Hoy Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University, and Nancy Acevedo, an associate professor of educational leadership and technology at California State University, San Bernardino, are the authors, and they mix their views — based on years of working on Latinx educational experiences — with the interviews. They answered questions via email.

Q: What led to your research approach of basing your book on interviews with Mexican American students?

A: For the past three decades or so, the majority of research studied students of color from a deficit perspective, and the asset-based research has not translated to changes in policy and practice. Mexican American and African American students, in particular, have been characterized as low-achieving and somehow “deficient” of successfully navigating educational institutions. Given our interdisciplinary background, we understood that the field of education does not integrate ethnic studies as foundational to examine the experiences of students of color.

We often ask: Why do Chicana/o/x youth often fail in school compared to their white or Asian counterparts? Yet we know that, in fact, many Chicana/o/x youth do well in school and obtain social mobility. Thus, we engage asset-based and interdisciplinary perspectives, including Chicana feminist theory, to highlight the various strategies that Chicana/o/x students use to foster hope, resistance and success in the education system. And to also show the various institutional mechanisms in school and out of school that promote their success. Simply, as the largest and fastest-growing ethnoracial group in the United States and in California, the book profiles successful first-generation Mexican American college students who have overcome adversity. The book tells the life stories of how college-age men and women affected by immigration, poverty and education navigate American society and culture by accessing various institutional resources. We, the co-authors, also exemplify such efforts as the children of Mexican immigrant farmworkers and tenured university professors.

Q: How did you recruit the students?

A: The book is based on three unique research projects with low-income, first-generation Chicana/o/x students, in five community colleges and one four-year university classified as Hispanic-serving institutions in the United States.

Data for the community college chapter draws from the Pathways to Postsecondary Success project, a five-year, multimethod study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Between December 2010 and September 2012 the Pathways research team conducted three waves of semistructured interviews with 110 low-income students at three community colleges in Southern California. Specifically, we utilize qualitative data from the first set of interviews. For this chapter, the interview data drew from the 68 participants who identified as Chicana/o/x.

Data for the community college STEM students chapter derived from the study titled “Promoting Pre- and Post-transfer Success in STEM at Hispanic Serving Institutions,” which was funded by the National Science Foundation. The grant offered multiyear scholarships to students and aimed to examine the experiences of students earning STEM degrees at four community colleges and one four-year college in Southern California — all had HSI status. When writing the chapter, the study was in year three of five years. At the time, the study includes pre- and post-surveys with students and interviews with 46 students, 19 [of whom] identified as Latina/o/x.

Data for the four-year research university draws on 54 semistructured interviews with first-generation college students and 18 in-depth life histories with Mexican Americans to assesses their experiences from early childhood to college. The data derives from a larger study titled “First Generation College Student Inequality Project,” conducted from 2015 to 2018. The goal of the overall project was to identify the factors that different racial and ethnic groups contribute to inequality.

Participants were recruited through associations with multicultural education courses, ethnic studies courses, social sciences course, STEM majors, campus organizations and involvement with community organizations. Snowball sampling, use of social networks and direct approach in public situations were used. This sampling technique was employed to attain a reflective portrait of the larger population of first-generation college students on the university campus that were also from one of the five ethnic groups under study. The final group of student participants represented a wide range of majors on campus, and the racial breakdown reflected the larger demographic profile of the student body.

Q: What are the major issues facing these students at community colleges?

A: Community colleges are underfunded; they serve a majority of the student population but continue to receive a lower amount of funding per student when compared to four-year colleges.

The financial aid received by students is distributed inequitably, which has concrete implications for students often needing to work full-time in order to afford living expenses.

Community colleges are underresourced. Asset-based counseling that is present in programs is not readily accessible to all students. Developmental education prevented the majority of students from completing their postsecondary journeys.

The outcome of intersecting structural barriers entails low completion/retention rates.

For instance, the California Community Colleges (CCC) system enrolls 25 percent of all community college students nationwide, and 43 percent of CCC students identify as Latina/o/x. Financial divestment in the community college sector represents a clear indication of the state devaluing the education of community college students. Within the CCC system, over 80 percent of Latina/o/x students leave without earning a certificate, degree or transfer; for the majority of Latina/o/x students, the community college sector can represent their exit point in the educational pipeline.

Once in community college, institutional practices and policies further reinforce that Chicana/o/x students do not belong in higher education. For instance, until the recent shift, the majority of Latina/o/x students were placed into developmental education courses, which represent a key obstacle preventing Latina/o/x students from completing a community college degree. Faculty and counselors who maintain an asset-based perspective represent key institutional agents.

Q: Do four-year institutions do enough to encourage the students at community colleges to transfer? What more could they do?

A: Four-year institutions and statewide policies do not do enough to facilitate the transfer process. Some institutions have exemplar programs, such as the Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP) at the University of California, Los Angeles. The research led by Dimpal Jain calls for institutions to develop a transfer-receptive culture. Furthermore, policies such as the Transfer Admission Guarantee program in the University of California are an excellent start, but they also reproduce inequitable access to higher education by not including admission to the “top” campuses, such as Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Q: What are the keys to success for Mexican American students at four-year colleges?

A: The main issue is fostering a sense of belonging for Chicana/o/x students. In our book, we provide seven interconnected elements that are essential to fostering a sense of belonging for Chicana/o/x students — these seven elements are centered on co-curricular experiences, curricular experiences and out-of-school/-college time.

  1. Guidance counselors/advisers. Guidance at the college level includes not only logistical information about what courses to take but also the knowledge to navigate four-year college contexts.
  2. Teachers/faculty and staff. The second element includes validation from faculty and staff, which supports Chicana/o/x students in developing a sense of belonging.
  3. Academic experiences. The third element consists of ensuring that academic experiences prepare students for success outside the education system. In other words, colleges need to align with student learning objectives that aim to prepare students to dismantle lingering colonial contexts.
  4. Equitable distribution of institutional resources. The fourth element we propose includes ensuring that legislators, educational leaders and administrators ensure the equitable distribution of institutional resources so as to facilitate access to faculty mentors and next-step peer mentors.
  5. Restructure hiring practices. We assert that the fifth element of fostering a sense of belonging for Chicana/o/x students entails institutions hiring teaching faculty, administrators and staff who enact decisions from a critical consciousness standpoint. We agree that it is important to hire faculty who align with student backgrounds, but it is also essential to ensure that faculty reflect an asset-based perspective and critical consciousness so they can support the development and retention of Chicana/o/x students.
  6. Fostering familial peer relationships. Guided by the importance of social validation and familial relationships in Chicana/o/x communities, faculty and staff should be trained and required to foster supportive peer relationships within and outside classroom environments. As indicated in Chapters 3 to 6, students benefited from developing relationships with peers because they gained academic and social validation. As such, faculty can develop a sense of belonging for Chicana/o/x students by fostering an environment where students collaborate with and support one another.
  7. Community engagement through paid career/research internships. College leaders must provide access to career and research internships that pay a wage in line with the local standards of living.

Q: How do the students fit into the current debates on campuses about race and ethnicity?

A: The experiences of students reassert what has been noted for decades: colleges and universities need to fund ethnic studies departments and require ethnic studies courses. Doing so would support students with developing their critical consciousness and help in navigating postsecondary pathways. There is a dearth of ethnic studies and Chicana/o/x studies, both in K-12 and higher education institutions. Ethnic and Chicano studies courses represent opportunities for colleges and universities to educate student populations so they may disrupt racism and discrimination, not just while in college but also in their respective fields of study.

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