Paola Esmieu is the Associate Director for Programming at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.
Chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa coined the term “nepantleras” or “in-betweeners” to describe people who experience “nepantla.” Nepantla is a Nahuatl word meaning in-between space. Anzaldúa adopted it to represent the points of transformation in a person’s life and to theorize the experiences of people living in-between different cultures, social and geographic locations and intersectional identities.
I was first exposed to the term nepantla during my time as a Chicano/a Studies major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a Hispanic-Serving Institution. My first year in college was hard. I was academically underprepared, had no idea how to navigate the institution, struggled financially, was transitioning from child to adult, and missed my family. I felt out of place at an institution of higher learning and questioned if I should pack up and go home. In other words, I was stuck in nepantla and did not know how to make sense of it.
According to AnaLousie Keating, living in nepantla shatters our worldviews and self-identities; it is a painful, confusing and chaotic time filled with brutal change. But it is also a time of self-reflection, choice and growth. As defined by the Nevada State College faculty-led Nepantla Program, nepantla can be used to “connote the space in which many first-generation and underrepresented college students find themselves located, being ‘torn between worlds’ or ‘in between’ social locations and the transitions that many students face going from high school to higher education.” It was only through the support of my Chicano/a Studies faculty, the staff at the Department of Student Life, my new friends from the Latino/Chicano Living Learning Community, and my sorority sisters that I was able to navigate nepantla and make UCSB my home.
My story is not unique. Like me, many first-generation, low-income Latino/a students face similar issues of nepantla when stepping foot into an institution of higher education. After all, college is a time for growth and transformation for students across all institution types. However, Latino/a students face unique issues that HSIs are best equipped to manage. We’ve heard the issues facing these students before: underpreparedness, familial expectations, finances, racially tense campus environments and culture shock, and language barriers. Despite these issues and other obstacles to Latino/a retention, HSIs are able to provide Latinos/as with the greatest access to a college education by addressing their specialized needs.
An indispensable segment of our higher education system, HSIs comprise 12.1 percent of nonprofit colleges and universities, yet enroll 20.0 percent of all students, serve the largest proportion of Latino/a students (60 percent) and minority students (27 percent), have some of the highest average enrollments of low-income students (42 percent), and enroll a higher proportion of nontraditional students aged 24 and older (53 percent). At present, HSIs boast diverse faculties and staffs; provide environments that significantly enhance student learning and cultivate leadership skills; offer same-race role models; provide programs of study that challenge students; address deficiencies resulting from poor preparation in primary and secondary school; provide rich educational opportunities to those living and commuting in-between borderland communities; and prepare students to succeed in post-graduation endeavors. All these qualities position HSIs as the best institutions to meet the unique needs of Latino/a students.
Most important, HSIs understand the importance of “familia” and make efforts to establish close relationships with students’ parents and families to make campus feel like an extension of their home. Further, HSIs bring together support services to encourage Latino/a students to form their own on-campus familias. The support provided to Latino/a students by their on-campus familias is essential to their success despite difficult odds—something I experienced firsthand.
Most of all, HSIs are best positioned to help Latino/a students cope with the tug-and-pull of being in nepantla. There is something special to be said about an institution that understands why a student must negotiate family responsibilities, sometimes to the detriment of their studies. Usually the first in their families to go to college, Latino/a students are pressured into having to perform both at home and at school. They are trailblazers who bring much “orgullo” (read: pride) to their families, and, yet, they are often also breadwinners, translators and babysitters. This tug-and-pull of obligations is one that doesn’t have to be explained at a culturally responsive HSI. HSIs make room for these discrepancies and understand that Latino/a students are deeply rooted in collectivistic cultures even as they are bound to the expectations of American individualism.
HSIs understand this feeling of being in-between worlds and in-between cultures during an important and formative stage in one’s life. These institutions are crucial to promoting the educational advancement of not only Latino/a students but all students. HSIs are best suited to advance Latino/a students as they provide support, culturally responsive learning environments, and, most important, a home for the in-betweeners stuck in nepantla like I once was.
Paola ‘Lola’ Esmieu is the Associate Director for Programming at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and is a student at University of Pennsylvania’s Law School.