Latinx Face Unique Challenges in Academia

Monday, April 11, 2022

For those first in their family to complete higher education, it may be easier to discern some of the conflicts we experience in school. 

For me it came in the form of cultural themes regarding education which started in elementary school and presented themselves during my undergraduate years. This reality has resurged and permeated my graduate career. 

It all began when I moved to Brazil as a 7-year-old, only to move back to the U.S. two years later after my father completed his graduate studies in dentistry. 

It was a time of transition. After all, I found myself with temporary living arrangements, a shifting sense of community (and lack thereof), and two languages, neither of which could encapsulate my lived experience in a Portuguese-speaking home with an Anglicized North American education and socialization. 

I am not the only one.

In my home state of California, Latinx students in grades K-12 often find it a challenge to reconcile their cultural lives at home with their educational lives at school. 

Certain social and educational factors inhibit the cultivation of positive social capital – the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively – causing student performance to decrease for not only Latinx youth, but also students from similar immigrant backgrounds. 

This has effects for students while they are in school and once they leave. 

For instance, Latinxs embrace the “familia” culture, which places heavy emphasis on loyalty to the family – a standard not embraced as much by American culture. 

As Dr. Beatrice Ortiz states in her doctoral dissertation “Socio-cultural Factors That Influence Transfer Latino Male Matriculation into Four-Year Higher Education Institutions,” this causes some students to compartmentalize their home and school lives as a coping mechanism to deal with the inconsistency in cultural values. 

There are also differences in language, food, and school system, with generational values creating conflicts for Latinxs since they more often live in multigenerational immigrant households at the crossroads of different paradigms compared to their peers.

There is also, according to a 2009 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, a lower academic achievement in the Latinx student demographic: student dropout rates increase with each progressive grade level in high school, with an inverse relationship between high school grade level and motivation. 

In the 2009-2010 academic year for instance, Hispanics had the second lowest high school graduate rate and third highest dropout rate in California. 

Parental involvement also lags behind, and in a NCES 2011-2012 survey, Hispanic parents were the second least involved demographic group in their child’s school with an overall average parental participation of 55.5% — compared to the highest 66.2% statistic with white families. 

Although these statistics were described over a decade ago, there are some universal considerations moving forward if we desire to cultivate a more supportive environment for students. 

One of these includes community-building programs that promote a sense of belonging. 

Pérez and Solorzano state in their work “Visualizing everyday racism: Critical race theory, visual microaggressions, and the historical image of Mexican banditry” that stigmatization and micro-aggression against Latinx students caused by school faculty, curriculum, and peer culture cause lower self-esteem in Latinx students as they perceive being a subordinate racial group. 

However, Ortiz describes that in a study of five Latino males, peer support was an emerging theme that helped each gain a positive and interactive educational experience; this motivated them to continue in school.

Although other measures to improve student experience and performance encompass greater systemic changes outside the scope of each individual teacher, there are smaller measures that can be implemented on a local level. 

For instance, asymmetric distribution and reception of information about college may cause Latinx families to become skeptical and less likely to support their child during the college admission process. 

However, educational institutions and governments may consider allocating funding to non-profit organizations that inform families about alternatives, such as trade schools and community colleges. 

We may also continue efforts to increase diversity in curriculum by incorporating different names, ideas, and other cultural factors into what is taught. 

Not only is this endeavor written about extensively in educational research, but it is also a lived experience for students like me. 

After all, it would have been more relatable if some of those protagonists I came across in grade school were named João, or Thaís, or Bruno – all of which I came across when I entered my Brazilian side of life on weekends at church.

I am hopeful. 

I see larger societal dialogue regarding the mitigation of social, cultural, and educational barriers for any student.

I myself had the privilege of participating in this dialogue by speaking for the Portuguese departments both at UC Davis and Stanford University regarding my testimonial as a bilingual student striving for a reconciled identity and culture. 

And I will say that providing me with that platform, even after finishing my undergraduate degree, empowered me to synthesize, present, and communicate to a diverse audience of educators, students, and community members for the betterment of schooling. 

To that end, I postulate that ensuring that teachers, administrators, and politicians respect and promote differences and strive to incorporate methods into the teaching style can help facilitate the experience for minority students like myself.