With More Latina Women Enrolling in College, What Barriers Do They Still Face?

Repost from my article published in Feminspire:

As the rate at which Latinas enroll in college increases, it becomes increasingly important to address the barriers that exist for Latinas who are able to access college educations. As a Latina who has had the privilege of talking to other Latinas about their experiences at their respective colleges and universities, I acknowledge that our experiences are incredibly varied and that not all Latinas experience these barriers. But needless to say, many of my Latina hermanas have shared similar stories, making these barriers relevant and important to discuss.

According to an American Association of University Women report, Latinas do indeed aspire to graduate from high school and complete post-secondary educations, but various factors play in to their ability to do so. Factors that affect high school graduation, college choice, matriculation, retention and college graduation are primarily cultural. Due to the fact that the dominant culture in most degree granting, post-secondary institutions is White (approximately 60% of students, according to a report by the Institute of Education Sciences), deep cultural differences may pose added challenges for Latinas who are learning to navigate an academic environment that may be more natural to their Caucasian counterparts.

When Latinas attend college, they are usually thrown into a dominant culture which is unlike their own- often times, the majority of professors, faculty members and students will not be Latino/as. Latino families prioritize culture as a factor in the evaluation of self-identification and worth. When away at college, Latinas are often faced with the challenge of negotiating their cultural identity against a more dominant, White, American culture. These decisions can be as serious as deciding whether to change an area of study because no Latin America Regional Concentration classes are taught by Latinos, or deciding whether to join a Latina sorority to show solidarity with your Latina sister vs. a traditional one for a more “normal” Greek experience. This process of cultural renegotiation may pit a Latina’s connectedness to her family against her desire to be independent and pursue her personal educational and career goals.

The very Latino emphasis on familismo (familism), a concept that emphasizes the importance of family ties, loyalty and interconnectedness, is crucial when discussing Latina success and failure. Familial support, and the social capital that is derived from the larger social networks that familismo encourages, may help Latinas get in to college and navigate it successfully. On the other hand, culturally, Latino distrust of those outside of the family may lead to family members discouraging Latinas from leaving home for college, or if Latinas do leave, they may face feelings of guilt for having done so. Familismo may also pose challenges for Latinas during the college selection process, during which their selection of school and career interests may be subject to discussion and determination by family members, including extended family members.

Even Latinas with the most supportive families may face issues adjusting to campus cultures in which there is little Latino representation. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2011 that the ethnic and racial breakdowns of full-time college faculty are as follows: 79 percent White and 4 percent Hispanic. The numbers for full-time professors were 84 percent White and 3 percent Hispanic. The disparity between the ethnicities of faculty and professors may lead to a cultural disconnect between Latino students and professors that would prevent students and teachers from connecting or effectively communicating across their cultural paradigms.

In addition, lack of representation and immersion in a new culture pose additional challenges for some. In areas where Latino populations are minimal, Latinas might be faced with stereotyping and the contingencies that come with them. This includes dealing with slight microaggressions having to do with racial stereotypes that insinuate that all Latinas are feisty, sexy, like being called “mami”, speak like Sofia Vergara, and of course, are all “curvy latinas”. While some of these stereotypes may be true on an individual level, they can still be racial microaggressions that make Latinas hyperconscious of their status as women of color, and their ability to either play in to those stereotypes or prove them wrong.

Latinas face unique circumstances and issues when they decide to go to college, and especially when they move away from home. At a time when Latinas are enrolling more and more in colleges and universities, it is important to address the conflicts that they may encounter. At a time when blatant racism is outlawed (albeit still an issue), but cultural stereotypes, racial and sexist microaggressions ensue, it is important to start a conversation about the additional barriers Latinas are facing and overcoming every day in order to create a more inclusive educational environment.

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