I also pause to reflect on how education has the power to change not only the life of students but also their families and communities. My grandparents did not complete primary school and yet, in three generations, their granddaughter achieved a doctoral degree. Within the Latinx community, this represents less than one percent of all doctoral degree holders in the United States (Yosso & Solórzano, 2006; Pérez Huber et al., 2015). A doctoral degree for me is not just about having written a dissertation, but is a culmination of the unseen labor and sacrifices of my ancestors, of my grandparents and parents, fighting against oppressive systems, to provide a better life and more opportunities for their children. It is a representation of the unrecognized, painful sacrifices, of our moms and abuelas who oftentimes, like my own mother, sacrificed the pursuit of their education to raise their families. Participating in commencement represents and honors the sacrifices of my community, with the hope that by seeing someone that looks like them in the cardinal robe inspires other students of color to work against the systems of oppression so evident within our education system.
This year, I had the honor of watching Dolores Huerta, one of the great Latina leaders of our time, receive an honorary doctorate degree from my alma mater. At 93 years old, she was recognized for her leadership and commitment to social justice and civil rights. I beamed with pride watching her be hooded on stage, her family members two rows ahead of me in the faculty section. As I sat in the audience, as one of the few Latina faculty members in the faculty seating, I was both overwhelmed with pride for my community, while also allowing this experience to continue to ground me in my purpose of working towards dismantling the harmful systems within the field of education. I also recognized that she is one of three Latinas in the history of my alma mater, and only Mexican-American woman, to receive an honorary degree. I also asked myself, why, at 93, is she barely receiving this recognition? This dissonance is present throughout commencement season for me, with this serving as yet another reminder that there is much more progress to be made for students of color in our broken education pipeline.
A statistic that has fueled and motivated me throughout undergrad and graduate school is rooted in the work of Yosso and Solorzano (2006) who state, in their report, Leaks in the Chicana and Chicano Educational Pipeline, “Academic institutions facilitate the flow of knowledge, skills, and students through the educational pipeline. Yet, no matter how one measures educational outcomes, Chicana/os suffer the lowest educational attainment of any major racial or ethnic group in the United States. (p.1)” At the time, 0.2% of doctoral degrees were achieved by Latina/o/x/s, with an even smaller number of Latinas receiving a doctoral degree. A more recent 2015 report, Still Falling Through the Cracks: Revisiting the Latina/o Education Pipeline, yet again found that while the graduate degree pipeline has improved slightly(increasing to 0.3%), little has changed in terms of degree attainment. These numbers still indicate that there is much more work to be done in order for our community to achieve representation in academia that is proportional to our demographic representation in higher education. With over 50% of K-12 public students in California identifying as Latino/a/x, the urgency cannot be greater (CDE, 2023).
Yet, despite the statistics, commencement also represents new beginnings for our community. I participated in the 43rd Latinx graduation celebration as a faculty member, themed, LatinXcellence. This year, 2023, had the largest number of Latinx graduates to date at our university! I was inspired by seeing how this graduation has multiplied in the fifteen years since I was a student. The growing number of cardinal doctoral robes, masters hoods, and undergraduate caps, with the sea of our beautiful comunidad seated behind them, filled my heart with pride for the achievements of our community. I looked out at the rows upon rows of graduates to see my students who found community within each other and my courses, to support, uplift and encourage one another through the personal and academic challenges they faced in graduate school.
Throughout commencement, I wear my ethnic sash as a symbol of the community that stands with me as I navigate institutions rooted in whiteness, oppression, sexism and racism. My very presence in higher ed is an act of resistance and the way I run my classroom fights against the very system meant to push out students of color (and far too often, faculty). We resist and push against systems of oppression in academia by serving as role models, counselors, and cheerleaders to our students, particularly, students of color.
We actively support our students against systems of oppression in academia by…
Embracing our students multifaceted identities, names, languages and cultures by inviting them to show up as their whole self in the classroom
Giving grace on deadlines [deadlines that we set…are we really going to grade those papers that are due at 11:59 pm at 12:00 am?] when first gen students are navigating institutional and structural barriers in our society
Holding space in class to talk about how imposter syndrome attempts to rob us of our feelings of belonging in academia
Actively listening to the student who has doubts about completing the program and encouraging them to continue on
Being vulnerable about our own lived experiences to students by humanizing ourselves and our own academic struggles
Taking the time to check in with the student who missed class because they are working two jobs (and offering adjusted assignment deadlines as they juggle work and their studies)
Working to building classroom environments where students feel safe to express themselves amongst their peers
Integrating mental health check-ins as a part of class time and exposing students to campus resources through the process
Liberating ourselves and our curriculum from cookie-cutter assignments (ex. everyone writing the same 10 page paper), and opting for open-ended assignments that empower students to demonstrate their learning by showcasing their gifts and talents
Demystifying the “getting a job” process by reviewing resumes, cover letters, and talking about the unspoken rules of interviewing for a first job
This list is not exhaustive of the many ways educators of color support students of color in our classrooms.
I believe, along with teaching content, that we must hold space for and support our students as they battle imposter syndrome, micro/macroaggressions, hostile political climates that dismiss/marginalize the Latinx community, and the isolation that is so often experienced by students of color within predominantly white institutions of higher education. Oftentimes, as faculty members of color, just recognizing and naming these experiences for students of color validates their experience and makes them feel that they are not alone, that we are in community together. By serving as mentors, listening, and providing guidance, we can ensure that our students of color succeed in higher education. We must use our presence in this space to assure our students that they too, belong.
For me, my participation in commencement is a reminder of the great responsibility I deeply feel to model for other women and scholars of color what is possible when we push against a system to be more inclusive, equity-minded, and work to ensure that more scholars of color continue to come after us.
Together, we can all succeed.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Vanee Smith-Matsalia (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).
Follow Erica on IG/Twitter @doctorasilva!
California Department of Education. (2023). Fingertip Facts on Education in California. Retrieved from https://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/ad/ceffingertipfacts.asp
Pérez Huber, L., Malagón, M. C., Ramirez, B. R., Gonzalez, L. C., Jimenez, A., & Vélez, V. N. (2015). Still Falling through the Cracks: Revisiting the Latina/o Education Pipeline. CSRC Research Report. Number 19. UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.chicano.ucla.edu/files/RR19.pdf
Yosso, T. J., & Solórzano, D. G. (2006). Leaks in the Chicana and Chicano Educational Pipeline. Latino Policy & Issues Brief. Number 13. UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (NJ1). Retrieved from https://www.chicano.ucla.edu/files/LPIB_13March2006.pdf