Latina women and higher education – making it happen

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by Dina M. Horwedel

Making It Happen

Four Latinas discuss how they, against the odds, realized their higher education and professional dreams. 

By Dina M. Horwedel

It wasn’t too long ago that the primary lifetime expectations for women included getting married and having children. These traditions were — and in many regards continue to be — more entrenched in the Latino community, but things are changing. Latinas who earn a degree are no longer the exception. In fact, more Latinas earn doctoral degrees today than their male counterparts.

And yet, Latinas still encounter obstacles like low expectations, financial constraints and a lack of knowledge about what it takes to apply and graduate from college. 

Four accomplished Latinas speak to Diverse about how they, against the odds, realized their higher education and professional dreams. 

Knowledge is Power
“Many of us living in poverty had the desire to go to college and were encouraged, we just did not have the means,” says Dr. Gloria Rodriguez, president of Nuestros Niños and founder of AVANCE Inc., a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that focuses on parent education and early child development.

Dr. Evangelina Holvino says Latinas need information on a range of educational options and opportunities. The organization she founded, Chaos Management of Brattleboro, Vt., is currently researching the experiences of high-achieving Latinas in corporate America to determine the secrets behind their success.

Dr. Sylvia Ramos, president of Richard J. Daley College in Chicago, was a first-generation college student and knows firsthand how important knowledge of the college application process is. 

“I literally had to adopt families with a college education to help me understand how to enter college and achieve a higher education,” she says. “I didn’t allow my culture to interfere with me getting an education.” Like Rodriguez, Ramos says her family encouraged her to pursue higher education.

Felicia Casados, the campus executive officer for New Mexico State University-Grants, says that while her family was also encouraging, their expectations for her didn’t go beyond traditional fields like teaching.

Combating Low Expectations
Rodriguez says that Latinas raised in more traditional households feel more pressure to bow to traditional expectations. “The more acculturated you become, the more options you see,” she says.

“I kept the Latino traditions that were important to my family, in addition to nontraditional values and expectations for girls.”

Holvino agrees, adding that young Latinas should be clear about their goals and expectations when dealing with traditional families.

“I suggest that young women … convince their family that their goals and education are for the good of the family,” she says. “Education is a way of helping the family to progress.”

Latinas can also encounter low expectations outside the family, as Rodriguez personally experienced.

“In my high school, girls were expected to go on to secretarial school,” she says. “A few Hispanic teachers took a tremendous interest in me and told me, ‘You can go further.’”

But not everyone thought so.

Rodriguez, who excelled academically, was told by her high school principal that she would not graduate from college. She even found out after completing her own principal’s certificate that when contacted as a college reference, her principal told the school not to accept her because she was not “college material.”

“But I was going to make it because of my self-confidence and support, despite other people discriminating or having low expectations of me,” she says.

Rodriguez eventually earned a doctorate in early childhood education/curriculum and instruction. She founded AVANCE in 1973 and served on former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

But getting into college doesn’t mean the battles are over. Ramos says there is a whole new set of obstacles to overcome once Latinas arrive on campus.

“We are raised in families with a lot of love, and we know how to navigate life,” she says. “But college expects verbal confrontation, and we are discounted because we are not comfortable with that. We are not heard because we don’t complain.

“We are raised to be respectful of authority, taught not to be rude, and expect to be given equal treatment,” Ramos continues. “The art of negotiating does not come naturally to us. But once you get into higher ed, it is who can talk the loudest, or convince the group that you should be given a leadership position, who comes out ahead.”

Forming Networks
According to a report released by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans in 2000, schools can accommodate Latinas’ cooperative learning style by encouraging them to create study groups. This enhances learning, combats feelings of isolation and creates a place for sharing feelings about cultural dissonance.

“From my high school class, which was 99 percent Latino, there is a nuclear physicist, four or five Ph.D.s, two assistant superintendents, executives, teachers, architects, accountants, nurses, very successful businesspeople and even a colonel in the military,” says Rodriguez. “Many made it and excelled because we were mentored and we encouraged and supported each other, even after high school. We knew we would succeed because we were not alone. It is important for students to join Latina associations and groups. This provides healthy competition and the ability to know that achievement is possible.”

But, Holvino says, many Latinas are hesitant to become involved in such groups, and as a result they often miss out on valuable networking possibilities and resources.

“We think that if a job is well done we don’t need to advertise our good work. But that is not enough. Peer support never ends,” Holvino says. “With high-level Latinas, as you move up in an organization or career, you rely less on role models and mentors and more on a peer support network.”

Role Models and Mentors
Holvino, who was raised in Puerto Rico, emphasizes the importance of role models and mentors, citing the difference between her undergraduate education in Puerto Rico and her graduate school and doctoral education in the United States.

“The major difference was that in Puerto Rico I was in the real majority. There are always issues of gender, but [in Puerto Rico] it was my culture and my people running the system,” Holvino says. After coming to the continental United States for graduate school, she had to find new mentors. “It helps a lot to have a mentor who shares your cultural background,” she says.

For Casados, having other women around is a primary concern. She says the first thing she looks for after entering a room is whether there are any women there.

“The next thing I look for is women of color,” she says. “It’s so important to us, as women, especially as minorities, to have mentors. I chose two female mentors through my cohort program who are Latina presidents of community colleges. I visited them on campus and shadowed them. I really feel that this added value to me as a professional.”

All four women recognize the value of role models and mentorship.

“Our mentors instilled in us that we must give back and improve the community,” Rodriguez says. She is now returning the favor, heading to her high school this year to mentor the next generation.


HOPE Takes the Lead in College Preparedness For Latino/a Community

There are several programs aimed at encouraging Hispanic students to stay in school and enter college, but few focus solely on girls.

Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, a California nonprofit organization, is leading the way to ensure the political and economic parity of Latinas through leadership, advocacy and education. HOPE is working to encourage local schools to reform high school curriculums to increase college preparedness, ensuring Latinas are prepared to enter college and graduate. HOPE’s A-G curriculum is a sequence of 15 high school courses that a student must complete to study at a four-year public college in California.

In 2004, only 24 percent of Latina public high school graduates had completed the A-G curriculum, leaving 76 percent ineligible for admission into the University of California or California State University systems. HOPE is currently testing the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Beginning in the 2008-2009 academic year, all incoming high school freshmen within the district will follow the A-G curriculum unless they have another preference. HOPE’s goal is to make the curriculum a graduation requirement for California high school freshmen planning to enter college in 2012. 

–Dina M. Horwedel

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