March 2, 2017
Buenos Dias Colegas!
The Latino/a Knowledge Community strives to support the research and share the stories of colleagues who are completing scholastic work, especially focusing on Latino/a educational issues. If you want to have your research or story shared, please contact Sarah Rodriguez (email@example.com) or Marissa Vasquez Urias (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Dr. Awilda Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. To contact Dr. Rodriguez, you may email her at email@example.com.
What initially interested you in studying Latinos in higher education?
Growing up in a predominantly Latino town--Perth Amboy, NJ--the cultural distinctions we recognized as high school students were primarily Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Understandably, transitioning to a predominantly white institution (PWI) as a first-year student was a total culture shock. It made the battles between mangú and mofongo seem nit-picky in light of the single-digit representation of Latinos on campus. S
ince my undergraduate experience, I have spent my time working to improve college access for Latino/a, Black, and low-income students. I worked at several organizations focused on expanding college access, trying to better understand the academic, financial and social barriers students face in their transition to college. After visiting numerous high schools across the country, I observed patterns in students’ college choices that I wanted to study in a systematic way.
How has your research evolved over time? What is a finding you did not expect?
I began my research reflecting on my past professional experiences. I was keenly focused on the individual-level decisions students made about where to apply and where to enroll. During my graduate studies, I was exposed to higher education policy, which seemed like an invisible layer of influence that shaped college choice in ways most students and families often struggle to imagine. Whether it’s rationing financial aid, benchmarking academic preparation, or awarding merit scholarships, federal, state, and institutional policies influence nearly all phases of a student’s college-going process. With this understanding, I was drawn to policy because I saw it as a tool to affect large-scale change in college access. Yet still, I did not expect to develop such a strong interest in policy.
My research has since shifted to include a focus on academic preparation for college. In my dissertation analysis, I found that students of color and low-income students were very unlikely to get into selective institutions based on their academic credentials. I then realized that some students experience a constricted college choice process because of the level of rigor they experienced in their high school courses. Given the importance that is placed on rigorous coursework in college admission and subsequent college success, a strand of my research has examined equitable access to rigorous high school coursework. I have pondered: Are Latino, Black, and low-income students getting an equal shot at taking the courses they need to prepare them for college? How can we leverage state and federal policies to create equitable conditions?
What motivates you to continue writing and pursuing this line of work?
It is interesting to me that most sophomores in high school will tell you they want to go to college—over 90%. But something happens along the way where some students either don’t go at all, or start college but don’t finish; students from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds are most likely to fall into these categories. Year in and year out, talented students that aspired to have a degree come home empty-handed. This phenomenon motivates me to continue researching the access barriers students of color and low-income students face; and work to identify promising policy interventions that could help improve academic preparation for these students.
How can your research influence the work of student affairs professionals?
My work lives in the transition from high school to college. Therefore, for student affairs professionals who support students during this period of transition (such as those who coordinate first-year orientation programs and seminars, as well as those who lead co-curricular learning experiences), my work helps illuminate the great degree of variability in preparation students bring with them to college. This variability has material consequences that land in the classroom as well as other places on campus. Oftentimes, students experience a vulnerable adjustment to college-level work and may not know whom to turn to. In many cases, students get discouraged, and may not realize that the onus of student success is not solely on them. In such cases, I hope my work is leveraged as tools for intervention, with the goal of equipping campus practitioners and administrators with resources to support students through their transitions.
Do you have final words of advice?
One of my fascinations with higher education policy is the fact that decisions are made in seemingly far away legislative chambers, yet have real impact on everyday lives. I encourage student affairs professionals to keep with the pulse of state and federal higher education policy and follow the news coming out of their respective state capitols and NASPA’s Research and Policy Institute. There are formal (invitations to comment) and informal (opinion pieces) ways to participate in the policy process. It is important for policymakers to hear from those who do the work of supporting students!
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