History and Belonging: First-Generation Latino/a Students and the Discipline’s Future

Yovanna Pineda, December 2016

ALiliya Shlapak/Shutterstocks readers of Perspectives on History know, the declining number of history majors has led to a general sense of crisis. As AHA Teaching Division vice president Elizabeth Lehfeldt pointed out in the October 2016 issue (“Addressing the Issue of Declining Enrollments”), the statistics are of particular concern at colleges where administrators determine the distribution of resources—including new faculty and staff positions and teaching stipends—based on the number of majors within each department. But data and anecdotal evidence point to possibilities within a growing demographic whose members seem more interested in majoring in history than are members of other groups: first-generation Latino/a students.

Latinos/as represent an important constituency for higher education—one that will only increase over time. The Pew Research Center (PRC), a nonpartisan, independent think tank based in Washington, DC, conducts extensive demographic research. In 2001, it established the Pew Hispanic Center, focused exclusively on Hispanics/Latinos in the United States. According to its 2009 report Latinos and Education, “nearly nine-in-ten (89%) Latino young adults say that a college education is important for success in life, yet only about half that number—48%—say that they themselves plan to get a college degree.” But by September 2013, the PRC reported that for the first time, “a greater share of Hispanic recent high school graduates are enrolled in college than whites.” Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 49 percent of Hispanics had enrolled in a two- or four-year college, while only 47 percent of non-Hispanic whites had. The report also found that Hispanics comprise 25 percent of all public school students, from pre-K to grade 12—a “demographic milestone.”

The numbers therefore show that Latino/a students already constitute a large and important minority group in education. But there’s more. As Allen Mikaelian pointed out in “Drilling Down in the Latest Undergraduate Data” (Perspectives, November 2014), the total number of history graduates declined overall after the 2008 economic crisis, but “Latino students are steadily increasing their participation in the history major. . . . [T]he number of history bachelor’s degrees awarded to Latino students increased over the previous year, while awards to all other racial/ethnic groups, including whites, went down.” If the future of the history major means anything to us, serving Latino/a students should be a priority. Getting a sense of their experiences is of particular concern to me, as roughly 16 percent of my department’s majors in 2014–15 were Latino/a.

So in fall 2014, I began a pilot study of a dozen Latino/a history majors, asking questions designed to yield an understanding of retention and these students’ plans after graduating with a history degree.

Even this relatively small sample provides insight into the reasons why Latino/a students might major in history, including intellectual and emotional motivations. For example, nine students sought to take advantage of their bilingual abilities to read primary sources about Latin America, the American Southwest, or Florida, while six of these students wanted to take classes from history professors who they felt shared their values. Six students used affective language, explaining that obtaining a history degree would be a source of pride within their families and communities. Three students even spoke of how important their personal success was, feeling that they represented the future of Latinos/as or Hispanics.

As my study went on, the complexity and vulnerabilities of being a first-generation Latino/a student became clearer and more distinct. I have maintained contact since August 2014 with three of these students while communicating with other history colleagues who also mentored Latino/a students wishing to pursue a postgraduate degree. Some of the stories that emerged were alarming.

One faculty member described a scenario concerning a Latino student she had mentored for two years in a master’s program. This student earned high grades, interned for a national journal, and published and presented his work in academic venues. He spent much time researching doctoral-level institutions and was ready to begin enthusiastically contacting professors at these universities. His mentor even reviewed his e-mails of inquiry to prospective advisers to make sure they were professional and succinct. Within a few weeks, the student began to receive responses, but his experiences revealed his vulnerability as a first-generation Latino student.

First, an elite private university refused to consider his submitted application until he took the TOEFL to prove his English proficiency. After repeated e-mail and phone exchanges with administrators to explain that he was an American citizen and had been raised in Florida, this university still dropped his application without explanation and failed to refund the application fee. Another e-mail from a professor at a prestigious public university bluntly told him that her program generally only accepted students from Ivy League institutions, making his chances very low. The student then turned to another faculty member in our department to discuss his situation. She advised him against “aiming too high” and instead encouraged him to apply to less renowned schools so he could “get in somewhere.” Perhaps she was well-intentioned, believing she was doing him a favor, but she was inadvertently reinforcing the elitism and exclusivity of top academic institutions.

Fortunately, this student ignored the advice and followed his own instincts, understanding that he had experienced bias based on his ethnicity and his school’s pedigree (the two often going hand in hand). He spoke out about this experience, which quickly circulated throughout the department and especially among the other Latino/a undergraduates I was also mentoring. Several became discouraged about applying to any prestigious program for fear of being told they were not worthy of admission—that, in some way, they need not apply. What immediately came to my mind was Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor’s 58-page dissenting opinion in the 2014 Supreme Court case Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Sotomayor powerfully expressed why racedoes indeed matter in access to higher education and other bastions of elite privilege: “because of the slights, the snickers, the silent ­judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”

Indeed, in the past two years, what I often heard were Latino/a students’ feelings of not belonging or of not being accepted outside of our regional state college, where many students come from backgrounds similar to theirs. Talented undergraduates anticipate being perceived as somehow less worthy than other (usually nonminority) graduate students if they do reach top institutions. Bias can happen on the basis of race, ethnicity, and class, but undergraduate degrees from regional state colleges are often, and unfairly, judged to be less rigorous than those from elite or flagship institutions. Though I have always encouraged my students to aim high when applying to graduate programs, my research made me more determined than ever to encourage my students who are first-­generation, Latino/a, or both to do so. After all, their rising numbers as history majors and as graduate students give them the potential to help build a more diverse professoriate.

If we better understand and empathize with the students in our programs, they will a have a much greater chance at exceling in our discipline. The student in my department who was told not to aim too high ended up being accepted to seven doctoral programs. He chose to go to a top public university in the East, with full funding. Aside from the program’s prestige, he chose it because he connected with a prospective thesis adviser who took the time to speak with him about his academic interests before he applied to the program, showing him the respect he deserved as a well-accomplished graduate of his college. My own three mentees were also accepted to their dream programs at top private and public institutions in the East, Midwest, and West, one with internal funding and another with an external grant from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

As the AHA’s Julia Brookins has suggested, given today’s “diverse landscape of American higher education,” we should be aware of the longer-­term demographic shifts in our regions. I would add that we should become aware of the ethnic composition of our pool of history majors and think about how we can be more sensitive to the particular vulnerabilities of our increasingly diverse student population.

Yovanna Pineda is associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida. All student and faculty anecdotes in this piece were used with permission.

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