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The Latino/a Knowledge Community strives to support the research and share the stories of colleagues who are completing scholastic work, especially focusing on Latinx/a/o educational issues. If you want to have your research or story shared, please contact Sarah Rodriguez (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Marissa Vasquez Urias (email@example.com).
Dr. Gina Ann Garcia is an Assistant Professor within the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. To contact Dr. Garcia, you may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What initially interested you in studying Latinos in higher education?
My passion for learning more about the lives of Latinxs in higher education stems from my own experience at California State University, Northridge. I had a wonderful undergraduate experience, learning from and with Latinx people, both through formal Chicana/o Studies classes, and informal interactions with my peers through Latinx student organizations. My own experience attending an (emerging) Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) influenced my way of viewing the world, and now I am passionate about knowing how HSIs can serve as counterspaces for Latinxs in higher education. As Latinx people living in the U.S., we must liberate ourselves, as no one is going to do it for us. And I truly believe that research is one way to do this.
How has your research evolved over time? What is a finding you did not expect?
My first experience with academic research was as a master’s student in the College Student Personnel program at the University of Maryland. I conducted a study about Latinas who were members of Latina Greek organizations, looking at how campus climate and social support systems influenced their adjustment and transition to campus. As I compared Latinas in Greek organizations to those who were not in Greek organizations, I found there were differences, suggesting that being in a Latina Greek organization mattered.
From conducting research that used individuals (Latinas) as the unit of analysis, I moved into studying organizations as the unit of analysis. This shift was motivated by my time working for four years at an HSI, and specifically working with a Department of Education Title V grant for developing HSIs. Over my four years, I became more critical of institutions claiming to “serve” Latinx students and much more critical of the system of higher education that egregiously oppresses Latinx students. When I entered the PhD program in higher education and organizational change at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), I changed my focus to HSIs, as a way to understand how organizations come to serve Latinx students. At the same time, living through the experience and growing pains of “becoming an HSI,” I also wanted to recognize and highlight those tensions. My work now focuses on those tensions. Sometimes I am critical of HSIs, and sometimes I am an advocate; both approaches are necessary in order to fully understand and appreciate HSIs. While I still write about the experiences of Latinx students, this research is typically embedded within an organizational study. In thinking about the evolution of my research, I now recognize that multiple contexts matter to the experiences and outcomes of Latinxs in college, and my research reflects this.
The most surprising finding has probably been that the faculty, staff, and administrators within HSIs are much more critical of their process of becoming HSIs and their ability to fully serve Latinx students than I am. As a researcher, I intentionally look for the positive angles, but appreciate that participants keep me grounded in the reality of working at an HSI. It’s hard work, and I appreciate those people who do that work every day. I probably shouldn’t be surprised about this finding, as I was critical of my ability to truly serve students when I worked at an HSI. Yet as a scholar who uses critical theory in my research, I often focus on the broader systems of higher education and the racialized society that we operate in, spending more time critiquing these layers, and less time critiquing the good folks within HSIs who are often doing the best that they can to make a difference in the lives of minoritized students.
What motivates you to continue writing and pursuing this line of work?
I am motivated to do this work because Latinxs continue to earn college degrees in inequitable numbers compared to white people, with inequities becoming more pronounced at the graduate level. As the Latinx population increases in the U.S., we must be concerned with the educational outcomes of this “majority minoritized” group. We cannot ignore the fact that the browning of the U.S. will affect all of us. Having an undereducated critical mass should be a concern to all researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and people in our society. My work focuses on what institutions of higher education can do to address the inequitable outcomes of Latinxs, but it is not enough. More work must be done across the educational pipeline in order to fully address the changing educational needs of Latinx students. I am honored to know so many scholars who dedicate their time and energy to addressing the same issues I care about.
How can your research influence the work of student affairs professionals?
As a trained student affairs practitioner, I always think about how my work can influence the field as a whole. When I wrote about student affairs practitioners working as an HSI (Garcia, 2015), I wanted to, first and foremost, shed light on the fact that student affairs practitioners experience the campus racial climate in divergent ways from students, yet we, as researchers, rarely look at this experience. In completing that research project, I thought a lot about the essential role that student affairs practitioners play in shaping the experiences of Latinx and other minoritized students on campus; yet, if they have a bad experience with racism and discrimination on campus, how can we expect them to fully support students? There is a real need to take care of student affairs practitioners so that they can take care of students.
In writing about institutional agents at an HSI (Garcia & Ramirez, 2015), my goal was to provide descriptive stories about the ways in which institutional agents move from simply supporting students, to actually breaking down institutional barriers to success for students. In doing so, my hope was that people could learn from the thick descriptive stories provided. While I have no way of measuring my true influence over the field of student affairs, I have hope that the research matters.
Do you have final words of advice?
In closing, I would like to stress the importance of doing work that we love, which is often centered on our own experiences. While some folks call it “me-search,” I want us to think of it as liberating research. As minoritized people in the U.S., we must liberate ourselves!
Garcia, G. A. (2015). Exploring student affairs professionals’ experiences with the campus racial climate at a Hispanic Serving Institution. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 8(2). doi:10.1037/a0039199
Garcia, G. A. & Ramirez, J. J. (2015). Institutional agency at a Hispanic Serving institution (HSI): Using social capital to empower students. Urban Education. doi:10.1177/0042085915623341