When Lorena Oropeza earned her Ph.D. in history from Cornell University and landed a job as an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Davis, it didn’t take long for her to realize there was as much demand for her talents and skills outside the classroom as in.
As she became aware of the lack of Hispanic presence on a variety of fronts at her institution, Oropeza agreed to serve on several university service committees since there was widespread demand for a Latina with academic credentials to serve on all kinds of panels. Before she realized it, Oropeza was on nine university service committees.
As knowledge of her presence spread, there were more and more invitations on campus and in the community for her to participate in various events, especially those aimed at young Hispanics and education. She would rarely say no, she recalls, as she felt she was helping fill a void.
“For a long time, it [her achievements and rank in academia] kind of propelled me to say yes to everything,” recalls Oropeza.
Meanwhile, there were more demands from the university as Oropeza still had to teach students, critique and grade assignments, counsel, do research and publish on a regular basis.
Oropeza is among a small cohort of Hispanics who have earned Ph.D. degrees and subsequently found themselves stretched from pillar to post in their careers. They are trying to make good on their own goals as teachers and researchers while trying to be meaningful participants in a greater, less defined effort to fill the largely blank pages that tell the story of Hispanics in America and the world.
“You become the face of all good things Latino,” says Columbia University professor Frances Negron-Muntaner, a third generation holder of a Ph.D.
“The reason I feel stretched is I see a need on multiple levels, a huge sense that there are opportunities not being taken and a number that need to be explored,” she says, offering one example after another of the “opportunities” that demand her time and skills.
“We get on a treadmill and never get off,” says Dr. Lillian Guerra, associate professor of Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida, ticking off a seemingly endless list of activities and projects with which she is involved. “It all comes down to your oddity as one of the few minorities. You’re doing the work of four.”
It’s a good thing
Most Hispanics at the top of the academic ladder say their acknowledgment of being stretched should not be misconstrued as complaining about the demands of their work. To the contrary, they say, they consider themselves stretched in good ways.
“It’s a welcomed demand,” says Arizona State University Professor Carlos Valez-Ibanez, who earned his Ph.D. in 1975 at the University of California San Diego. Ibanez, who says he feels stretched “all the time,” says that feeling he and his Hispanic peers have “is historical and social.”
The near non-existence of Hispanic-American Ph.D.s in American academia before the 1960s inspired those who earned their credentials in the early years of meaningful inclusion of Hispanic academics to go the extra mile, Ibanez explains. They wanted to spread what they learned, work to correct decades of the stereotypical and inaccurate information in higher education about Hispanics and serve as a living example of what Hispanics in America could achieve in higher education, says Ibanez.
The “uptick” of Hispanics going to college in the late 1960s and 1970s has not been met by the needed complement of Hispanic academicians, Ibanez and others say. The scarcity of Hispanic-American Ph.D.s would be even worse were it not for the 50-year-old Ford Foundation Fellows Program, which has helped some 1,700 Hispanic-Americans pursue and achieve doctoral degrees. Ford has the largest financial grant program in the nation aimed at filling the Hispanic Ph.D. pipeline. There are other smaller efforts that complement its efforts, such as the Andrew Mellon Foundation Minority Undergraduate Fellowship Program.
Those who have made it say they feel compelled to go the extra mile in the academy and the classroom, which Ibanez and several others refer to as the “double whammy” experienced by all Ph.D.s of color.
“It’s like you get elected,” says Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, associate professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin. “There are certain expectations.
“From the outside, people don’t realize how much work you do,” continues Rivas-Rodriguez, who, among other things, is director of an ambitious World War II Hispanic veterans oral history project. “The part you do in the classroom is one big part of your job. The rest takes a lot of time. You have to keep writing and stay involved in the [academic and greater] community.”
Guerra notes the special kinship many students have with seeing and hearing a Hispanic professor. On more than one occasion, a student who spoke only English in class would approach her afterward to speak in Spanish. Students realize they have a professor interested in them, their history, their past and present interests, says Guerra.
With no offense intended for many of her non-minority counterparts, Guerra recalls how, as Melon Fellows, she and fellow classmates met with the late legendary historian John Hope Franklin. The focus was on teaching ethnic courses. Guerra says Franklin told the group he hoped one day to see minorities teaching just ethnic studies. She also recalls Franklin telling the class that those students pursuing narrowed paths “are subject to that double label of illegitimacy,” as non-minority peers question the value of non-European history.
“Ignorance is a tremendous privilege for a certain group,” says Guerra, stressing that minorities at the top of the academy must constantly fill the void created by those in the academy who have no serious interest in studying, documenting and teaching about other cultures and oftentimes question the work of those who do.
A balancing act
Many suggest Ph.D.s need to make choices about their careers and lives, lest they find themselves too stretched for the long run.
At Columbia, Negron-Mutaner, one of fewer than 50 Hispanics on a Ph.D. faculty of some 1,000 people, says she has created some priorities after five years of going almost non-stop.
“I put it through the filter of how does it complement the goals I want to reach right now,” says Negron-Muntaner. “When you are exhausted, you won’t do your best in your job or classroom—all aspects of your life will suffer.”
Negron-Muntaner says she learned to say “no” even when she wants to say “yes.” In cases where she does decline to participate, she will do so in a note offering suggestions of other possible participants or ways to think about the topic at hand.
Oropenza, who has managed her career through two bouts with cancer and raising two children, says the non-academic demands forced her hand. “To me, it’s a delicate balance,” she says. “Where do you put your resources and time?”
Oropenza, like others interviewed, say it took several years to figure how the university really worked, then governed herself accordingly. “Figuring that out and maximizing the time I have was important,” she says.
Stretched as they may be, Ibanez, who considers the Ph.D. as “only a calling card,” offers this reminder to his present and future peers of why they go the extra mile for the generation behind them.
“It’s reciprocal because you also get it back,” he says in a moment of deep reflection on his years of working to reach his position in the academy and why he feels it’s important to help those behind him. “You get it back in the gleam in their eyes, the smile on their faces and when they come back as graduates. It’s emotional.”