Wednesday, October 21, 2020

STEM diversity and student Latina/o resilience: A reflection, by Angela Valenzuela, Ph.D.

Friends and Colleagues:

For those of us in higher education—in Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), in particular—this special issue of the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, edited by Drs. Gonzalez and Fernandez, is high-quality, informative, and policy-relevant. In this piece that I share below, I read and reflected upon every contribution to this volume that I found to be quite troubling on so many levels, as a whole.  They raise the key question of what "servingness" in being an HSI actually means. 

If you are at a university, check to see if your library carries this journal so that you can have access to the different contributions listed here in the journal's Table of Contents. Certainly, every HSI or emerging HSI should read this, as well as STEM programs in high schools, colleges, and universities nationwide.

Particularly for Latinas in STEM, there is far too little of this research that examines HSIs from a qualitative and critical policy perspective to both ascertain and interrogate struggles experienced within university classrooms and departments. 

What actually "works" for Latinx youth must be considered if we are ever to move the needle on their representation in STEM classrooms and careers.  Thanks, in particular, to University of Houston Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Assistant Professor, Elsa Gonzalez, Ph.D, for extending this wonderful opportunity and challenge of summarizing this important volume.

-Angela Valenzuela

Published in QSE Special Issue

Gonzalez, E. & Fernandez, F. (2020). “Understanding Latina/o Resilience,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Volume 33, Issue 8 (2020)


STEM diversity and student Latina/o resilience: A Reflection

by Angela Valenzuela, Ph.D.

This reflection explores the contributions to this special issue in order to derive an over-arching sense on the many difficulties that Latinas attending universities designated as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) face in STEM fields where their abilities are not only questioned, but they also get marginalized, deprived of opportunities that are customarily available to their white, male peers. Notwithstanding their “HSI” designation, their systemic isolation and exclusion in Eurocentric institutions, while challenging, are frequently offset either by familial or cultural resources that allow them to persist. A major point is that though Latina students’ resiliency is a noteworthy attribute and research finding, it would be less necessary if university classrooms and departments themselves were more inclusive, affirming, and asset-based spaces to begin with.


STEM, Latina/o, Resilience, Hispanic Serving Institutions

   From the lens of student resilience, the underlying question that ties this special issue together is how might a Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) enhance Latina/o/x students’ success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Success here involves their entrance into STEM fields; retaining them once they have been admitted; and graduating them upon completion. This would seem to be a vitally important question informing policy and practice given that as Rincón and colleagues (this volume) note, ‘the U.S. is witnessing a demographic shift towards a majority-minority populace where Latinxs are projected to account for 75 percent of the growth in the nation’s labor force’ (p. 2). This fact alone would seem to put serious pressure on HSIs, in particular, to meet our resilient students at least halfway.
   Their documented failure to do so, however, has serious labor market implications. For instance, we know that the number of students pursuing degrees in STEM fields falls short of the demand, and that this problem of supply is particularly acute for the Latinx student STEM population who in 2010 registered 8 percent of all degrees awarded in 2009 and 2010 (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). Before addressing ideas that will move the needle to increase the representation of Hispanics in STEM, I am compelled to critique the problematic departments and programs in which they find themselves, and the resiliency that preserves the students in response, which I read as two sides of the same coin. Expressed differently, resiliency would be less necessary as an attribute if classrooms, departments, and universities were more inclusive of, and less prejudicial toward, Latinx students.
Hispanic students’ resilience and uncaring institutions
As I read through these pages of how Latinx students fare in STEM fields in HSIs, it’s disheartening to read about the levels of exclusion, alienation, and isolation that so many students face, even as it is positive to read about the resources, strategies, and coping mechanisms, that students marshal as they seek career advancement in STEM fields. Tragically, For Latina females, the double-bind is particularly troubling with either their gender or their race calling into question their abilities in the form of subtle- and not-so-subtle forms of microaggressions as expressed in the students’ own words from one of the more poignant accounts (Contreras, this volume):

I feel like we get discriminated just because we are women, that's never been expressed with me, but I've heard them speak about other women and it's because they question women, they don't think that they’re as smart as them. (p.9)
I think they underestimate us a little bit sometimes…because we are women…their expectation is wrong, just because you are a man does not mean that you're correct all the time…because their intelligence is no better than mine. (p.9)

   Banda (this volume) interrogates the field of Engineering and concludes from her own research that Latinas’ intersectionality both as women and Latinas, translates into ‘intersecting, multiple and simultaneous forms of marginalization, isolation, and exclusion’ (p. 12). Banda’s research subjects report a glaring lack of diversity, with no faculty of color, especially Latina professors within sight. Classroom climate is also a major point of contention, characterized by sterile, transactional interactions with faculty, ‘weed out’ courses, and grading on a curve that reinscribe white, male dominance. In the words of one interviewee, such faculty are ‘uncaring, unwelcoming, unapproachable, and simply not teaching’ (p. 7). This hostile environment, unfortunately, spills over into a competitive relationship with peers, when jockeying for internships and employment opportunities.
   This finding of a lack of caring in HSI institutions is tragic. Most troubling of all is how Latinas’ intelligence gets questioned. In this vein, an interviewee in the Contreras (this volume) piece offers the following:
I know other people have bad connotations, how they view us. Like I know still here I kind of struggle, some people are like, ‘why?' They think I'm lesser than them.
   As Gonzalez, Ortega, Molina, and Lizalde (this volume) note, institutional dynamics within HSIs can induce feelings of doubt and distrust. In particular, gender dynamics in STEM classrooms frequently position Latinas as always having to prove themselves, coinciding with difficulties of making friends with peers as follows:
They (male peers) think a female doesn’t know what she is doing or that if a girl asks a question in class or trying to get a point across that it’s okay to interrupt. Someone will interrupt to answer the question because they genuinely want to help, but there are others who just want to talk over you and try to explain it better (p.7). (Contreras, this volume).

   In general, the picture that emerges across the studies with diverse, qualitative methodologies is the presence of an authoritarian, conservative, Ivory Tower curriculum and pedagogy that treats students as passive learners, on the one hand, and as attainable only via a competitive approach to knowledge acquisition with little to no concern about developing students’ identities as moral and social beings, much less as competent and culturally diverse. The cruel irony instead is that they find ‘themselves at odds with the Eurocentric middle-class values embedded within’ (p.19) (Rincon, Fernandez, & Duenas, this volume).
   Aside from students’ cultural capital discussed below, the kinds of things that ‘work’ to induce a sense of belonging include Latinx-themed organizations like sororities and centers for Mexican American Studies (e.g., Gonzalez, et al., this volume). What would be immeasurably helpful as they contemplate a career and future in STEM occupations are greater access to mentorship and internship opportunities, getting research opportunities in laboratories, and smaller departments where students are less anonymous and relations with faculty are more intimate by design (Banda, this volume).
   Reminiscent of Valenzuela’s (1999) case study research findings involving the experiences of Mexican-origin high school youth, an indifferent, uncaring posture of the faculty in STEM fields, particularly with respect to Latina females emerges as a major finding (Contreras, this volume). Rather than an asset-based, non-deficit, approach, students get customarily sorted into a hierarchy of so-called ‘ability’ that tends to relegate minoritized females and males to the bottom and white males to the top. It is therefore extremely troubling to read that Latinas who have beat the odds and gained a toehold in higher education STEM classes and departments, then have to battle through discursive practices and institutional cultures that discourage and invisibilize them (Banda, this volume).
   These finding remind me of my own case study research of Seguin High School (pseudonym) in the early- to mid-1990s in a Houston high school where faculty were indifferent to students who expressed a desire for authentically caring relationships and a desire for fairness and visibility in STEM programs. In addition, and congruent with Noddings (2015) theory of care, university faculty exhibit aesthetic, or superficial, caring. The minoritized students’ experiences captured throughout similarly point to an objectifying experience where ‘education’ is done to—as opposed to—with, them. It’s interesting to consider that while Seguín was a segregated inner-city high school where ‘serving’ Hispanics was not an expressed goal, it differs little from the colleges and universities covered in this special issue where doing so was ostensibly important to the mission.
   While not openly stated, we know that this is a system that accords their white peers a sustained message that their position in the academic hierarchy is natural and superior based on seemingly ‘objective’ measures of merit. As per STEM fields themselves, how does society benefit from an over-representation of white students in STEM and higher education, as a whole, while the latter enjoy, on a daily basis, a false sense of entitlement? And to what extent is our country’s admissions processes in STEM fields—HSI or not—an artifact of just how well our elite, culturally-capital-based prescreening devices align to what Feagin (2013) calls the ‘white racial frame?’. By this, Feagin refers to four centuries of stereotyping, bigotry, and white supremacist ideology that is deeply embedded in the very fabric of our dominant U.S. institutions?
   Against this backdrop of systemic oppression characterized by sexist, classist, and racist grading polices, biased practices, and politics of exclusion that lead to a severe under-representation of Latinx females and males (Lopez, Valdez, Pacheco, Honey & Jones, this volume), it is truly remarkable that any Latinx student finds their way into STEM departments and persist once there. Here is where resilience and community cultural wealth (CCW) come into play (Yosso, 2005).
Community cultural wealth
Yosso’s (2005) widely-cited CCW framework emerges across several pieces as a theoretical perspective that helps to account for a multiplicity of resources (i.e., Gonzalez, et al.; Contreras; Rincón; López et al., & Palomino, this volume). Lopez and colleagues outline these forms of capital as ‘aspirational, familial, linguistic, navigational, resistant, social, and spiritual’. I focus on two of the contexts presented in this volume because they put flesh on the bones of the broad outlines of these different forms of capital and how they work to promote a sense of belonging and well-being.
   The first involves an intergenerational collective comprised of 6 individuals at an HSI called, ‘Las Comadres (LC)’ research team. It is comprised of all-female faculty, administrators, and one engineering undergraduate student who was a mentee and research assistant to a larger research project pertinent to a Latina mentoring program at the University. Using a Chicana Feminist epistemology they turned their lens inwardly to document their own stories, positionalities, and experiences within higher education to assess the impact of the LC on them. Emergent themes that surfaced were a sense of power and efficacy, evident in the concept of ‘navigational capital,’ together with the motivating value of being a part of the LC collective. In contrast to the more general finds of student isolation and exclusion in the other contributions to this special issue, this was the most contrasting narrative. What made the difference was the presence of a Latina faculty member who brought a Chicana Feminist epistemology to what they termed a ‘sacred space,’ that involved the group’s reading of critical texts that together with regular discussions that generated data for analysis, strengthened their bonds and promoted trust and respect. In this space, for example, the sole professor’s sharing of how she was able to navigate the vicissitudes of higher education institutions, exposed the team to intimate, first-hand knowledge that brought depth to their discussions while simultaneously fostering resilience for everyone in the collective. Lopez and colleagues cite Garcia (2016, 2019) whose research on HSIs examines ‘servingness,’ and the importance of authentic, as opposed to superficial, forms of responsiveness to Latinx students (also see Fernandez and Burnett, this volume, for their critique of the HSI accreditation process).
   The second example consists of Rincon et al.’s study of 16 Latinx students attending four Northeastern universities in a novel, comparative analysis along the lines of first-generation and continuing generation students. Whereas first-generation students are the first in their families to go to college, continuing-generation students have one or more parents who have done so. The researcher further distinguishes between Latinx students’ with CCW and those with traditional forms of capital characterized as ‘traditional,’ along Bourdieuian lines where the wealth of the latter is more in line with that of the former. Since generally speaking, continuing-generation students also have traditional capital, the study sought to compare them to their CCW, first-generation counterparts with the expectation that navigating higher education STEM fields would be less complicated for them given their synchronous relationship to the academy. Conversely, the divergent form of capital held by first-generation students relative to that espoused by the academy raised the question of the role of their form of capital given their non-synchronous connection to the academy.
   The researchers found that continuing generational students with traditional forms of Eurocentric capital had found ways to navigate between institutional values like individualism and CCW values like the value of family from their parents that allowed them to more easily navigate higher education STEM fields, in particular. In contrast, first-generation students faced more difficulties in navigating higher education STEM fields because of the divergence between CCW and Eurocentric, middle-class values. At least one student found the experience to be so conflicting that he decided to pull out of a STEM student organization that he found to be too competitive, thus opting out of a pathway for students intending to pursue advanced STEM degrees. Similarly, another student who sought to give back to his community decided not to pursue a career as a STEM professor because the very community whose lives he wanted to touch were not located in STEM college classrooms and as a consequence, less useful to his community.
   Negotiation proved to be a valuable tool for students for whom the STEM classroom was most divergent. Two students, for example, reported making use of opportunities to earn credit via volunteer service in their respective communities by reframing the expectation of such activities for students’ personal benefit, and more because its intrinsic value and meaning to them. A third student engaged in outreach activities to students who originate from communities like hers. This was less about building her resume, as the university expected, a more about doing her part to change an institutional culture that disparages her and people from her community. Rincón and colleagues (this volume) describe student agency to give back to the community as ‘moves’—or ‘movidas,’ we might suggest—that students have to make in order to cope with an alienating college experience. Movidas as expressed in Espinoza, Cotera and Blackwell (2018) analysis of Chicana feminist epistemology and agency during the Chicana and Chicano movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is the point of departure for my remaining reflection.

In the introductory chapter to Chicana Movidas: New Narratives of Activism and Feminism in the Movement Era, authors Espinoza, Cotera, and Blackwell (2018) lay out a framework on how Chicana leaders were able to use their cultural capital and political networks to advance a progressive, feminist political agenda within the confines of a masculinist politics during the movimiento years. While referencing strategic and tactical moves, it connotes ‘the undercover, the dissident, the illicit’ (p. 2). Movidas are Chicanas’ tools for ‘destabilizing’ ‘normative practices and ideologies in as much as these practices and ideologies enact relations of subordination, inequality, or invisibilization’ (p. 3). Since the present account is very much about a continued subordination and denial of voice and identity, movidas for transformational change are what is currently needed.
   Several things appear obvious to me. Mediated in great part by the lack of diversity among STEM faculty, the Eurocentric, individualistic, ‘epistemic bubble’ that characterizes STEM fields needs to change (Nguyen, 2020). As things stand, the current forces of socialization within higher education STEM are concerning. I can’t help but wonder, for example, where the continuing-generation students’ traditional capital leaves off, and their likely unwitting unanimity with the epistemic bubble begins? How are we to ground such students from a CCW perspective when the individualistic lure of economic rewards and mobility is so seductive?
   That said, as much as we worry about how we as Latinx women and men fare in higher education institutions, my sense is that we should equally worry about higher education itself getting trapped in an ‘epistemic bubble,’ however elaborate or arcane, of its own making. We must ask ourselves what is not getting researched and what questions are not getting asked because of an utter lack of diversity in STEM fields within HSIs, or in higher education, as a whole? If the lives, histories, cultures, and internal diversity of Latinx peoples are systematically outside of science, it is plausible to conclude that neither a sufficiently broad nor representative coverage of topics of vital importance to Latinx people and people of color, generally, are getting addressed—at a time when Mexican people, in particular, are a target of racialized animus and state, anti-immigration policy (Anti-Defamation League, 2018).
   While I am heartened, in particular, by the very important role that parents play in helping students, their children, stay in school and pursue their ambitions (Palomino, this volume), we need to advocate for, and make us of, those parts of the higher education curriculum like Ethnic Studies, Women and Gender Studies, LGBTQ Studies to provide students with a critical analysis of institutions and how they have historically worked to perpetuate themselves while leaving students defenseless against their sexist, racist, and dehumanizing practices and policies. In such courses, students would be able to interrogate ways of knowing and being that relegate our communities to an afterthought. At their best, Ethnic Studies teaches students to learn about their own communities’ struggles with racial and social injustice, exposing them to historical and contemporary narratives and traditions of resilience and liberation.
   If including us as students in the hallowed halls of STEM—or for that matter, any other part of the university results in the social production of uncaring opportunists or narrow mobility seekers, why would any agenda for inclusion really matter if the voices we so desperately need today to stand up to the forces of neoliberalism and fascism are muted or coopted? I would hope that an enlightened version of STEM fields, classrooms, and careers would be thusly empowered. While all of the students featured within this volume are doing their best to stay centered in their values, what do we have yet to know and learn about those whose experiences took more conventional routes that align to the ‘white racial frame’ about which Feagin (2013) writes?
   If we understand curriculum at any level of the schooling system to equate to the reproduction of consciousness (Valenzuela, 2016), then an appropriate movida would be to connect the Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, and LGBTQ Studies to STEM curriculum and careers in substantive ways. We should advocate, accordingly, for these studies to be required parts of the curriculum. Our goal should further be to advocate for this curriculum in earlier grades so that younger students can learn about forms of agency that resulted in Latinx peoples creating institutions and political constituencies for change that provide roadmaps for individual and collective action. How might we begin to imagine fields like mathematics, science and engineering from a Chicana feminist, Indigenous, or decolonial standpoint? How might accreditation standards be substantively revised from a community-based, social justice lens?
   Latinas’ voices in this volume are loud and clear; they are resilient. They express a desire for fairness, respect, and an ethic of care. They seek to be recognized for their unique backgrounds and diversity, even as they simultaneously resist reinscribing systems that privilege maleness and whiteness. I feel deeply for these students. I see my story in theirs. Fortunately, I do sense that all will be well with them, but I lament that after 50 years of activism, our educational institutions have shown enormous durability in their penchant to discriminate and exclude. I want them to know their power and potential, their resilience, particularly the written an unwritten histories of women and men who came before them without whom not even the white-washed, STEM education that they are receiving would be possible.
Notes on contributor
Angela Valenzuela, PhD is Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

Anti-Defamation League (2018). Mainstreaming hate: The Anti-immigrant movement in the U.S.
Espinoza, D., Cotera, M. E., & Blackwell, M. (Eds.). (2018). Chicana movidas: New narratives of activism and feminism in the movement era. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Feagin, J. R. (2013). The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and counter-framing. New York, NY: Routledge.
Garcia, G. A. (2016). Complicating a Latina/o-serving identity at a Hispanic Serving Institution. The Review of Higher Education, 40(1), 117–143. Crossref
Garcia, G. A. (2019). Defining ‘servingness’ at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs): Practical implications for HSI leaders. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
Nguyen, C. (2020). Echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Episteme, 17(2), 141–121. Crossref
Noddings, N. (2015). The challenge to care in schools. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
U.S. Department of Education (2014). Hispanics and STEM. National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS., Completions survey. Hispanics and STEM Fact Sheet (20).
Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling:  US-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.
Valenzuela, A. (Ed.) (2016). Growing critically conscious teachers: A social justice curriculum for educators of Latino/a youth. Teachers College Press.
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91.

No comments:

Post a Comment