Against All Odds: Increasing Latinx Postsecondary Completion Through Sense of Belonging

naspa community college division

Nancy Martinez

May 13, 2019

“I won’t be another statistic” exclaimed the young, Latinx student sitting in my office. As a teenage father, John (a pseudonym) recalled the statistics he was bombarded with by his high school teachers. Those statistics were a reminder of his low probability of success. Since neither of his parents completed high school, they told him that he would become a “house husband” and never go to college; yet there he was, sitting in my office, sharing with me his aspirations of earning his Ph.D. in Psychology. Curled up in the chair next to him was his young daughter who has been with him throughout his educational journey—from high school to college. Despite his previous negative experiences and 5-year break from school, John summoned the courage, perseverance, and grit to enroll in college.

However, enrolling in college is not the only outcome desired for Latinx students—it is getting them across the finish line with a bachelor’s degree in hand. Jens Manuel Krogstad, senior writer and editor for the Pew Research Center, summarized the current educational landscape for Latinos in 5 Facts about Latinos and Education. He indicates that despite an increase in college enrollment, Hispanics (the term used by the US Census Bureau) have the lowest completion rates when compared to Asian, White, and Black students. These students continue to come in last in the race towards postsecondary completion. The alarming low postsecondary completion rates for Latinx and Hispanic students should be a national concern since according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population is projected to comprise almost 29% of the nation’s population by 2060.

As John’s story demonstrates, teachers can have a strong and direct impact on the academic success of students. College students spend a large portion of their time interacting with faculty. To assist Latinx students in getting to the finish line, faculty, staff, and administration all need to help increase students’ sense of belonging and validate that they are worthy of belonging in our colleges and universities. When Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, author of College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Education Success for all Students, talks about and defines what college students perceive as a “sense of belonging,” he makes it clear that the staff and faculty need to help students feel, “cared about, accepted, respected, valued” (p. 4). Providing Latinx students with a welcoming, supportive environment can improve their chances of reaching the finish line. I will provide some recommendations based on my personal experience that may help you increase Latinx students’ sense of belonging.  

First and foremost, we must have an awareness of and willingness to address our biases and prejudices. To demonstrate an appreciation for students’ racial identity, we need to be curious about students’ culture, race, and ethnicity. Addressing our biases and prejudices can help our curiosity flourish and increase our openness to learn about them before creating a story in our minds about who they are, where they come from, and what they are capable. We must be aware of what negative thoughts need rewiring in order to change our behaviors and improve our interactions with students of all backgrounds. It is extremely difficult to care about others of whom you have negative perceptions. Realizing that we carry biases and prejudices can be a difficult pill to swallow; especially, when you see yourself as a social justice educator that believes in the potential and success of all students. By addressing our prejudices, we are more likely to listen to students in a compassionate, wholehearted, and unjudgmental manner.

Once we address our biases and prejudices, we can offer students the external validation and encouragement they need to remind themselves that they possess the skills and knowledge to succeed and are worthy enough to be at our institutions. When you are in the minority, it means a lot when someone to takes the time out of their day to connect with you, provide undivided attention, listen attentively, and validate your experience. The next time you are talking with a student who is questioning their place within the campus community, say “I am invested and committed to helping you succeed. What can I do to help make you feel like you belong here?”

Lastly, it is vital to prioritize our mental health and overall well-being to provide students with the best possible experience. Taking care of ourselves is a prerequisite to taking care of others and doing the best job we can. With endless meetings, deadlines, back-to-back counseling appointments, and student emergencies, it is extremely difficult to take care of ourselves. We rarely practice mindfulness—the act of being aware of the present activity, emotions, or thoughts. Being in the moment allows us to give our undivided attention to students and to be more sensitive to their feelings and concerns. Providing someone with undivided attention and showing an interest lets them know you care about them.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can support Latinx students, particularly those attending a community college, I highly encourage you to read Five Things Student Affairs Professionals Can Do to Support Latinx/a/o Students in Community Colleges by Hernandez, Hernandez, and de la Teja. It describes the paradox of access and success and the actions necessary to assist students in the race towards postsecondary completion.

Remember that we all yearn to belong. We learn at an early age that in order to survive, we need to belong in whichever environment we find ourselves. If we feel rejection, as John did in his first educational pursuits, we may hesitate to whole-heartedly pursue our goals or may even abandon them entirely. This is why, regardless of your role on campus, it is important to recognize that you have the ability to enhance or minimize every student’s sense of belonging. Strengthening connections with students and taking care of your individual needs can help improve retention and completion rates for all students, not just Latinx. We need to do whatever is in our power to ensure that every interaction we have with students leaves a meaningful, long-lasting impact that will help them, not just survive, but excel across the finish line. 

Nancy Martinez is a first-generation, Latinx student. She is a second-year doctoral student in the Leadership for Educational Justice program at the University of Redlands. Ms. Martinez is a counselor at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree, California.  

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