K-12 to College: How Can We Promote Success of Minority Males in Higher Education?

This is my first time at the Annual Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, and this happens at a point in my life when I reflect on where I am, professionally and academically, and consider where I’ve come from. I want to speak today, and tell you a little bit of my story, and mentors who helped me to find my way, and to understand that being a Latino in higher education can sometimes be lonely. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I never fit in with Latinos or white folks. Latinos thought I was too agringado, that is, whitewashed, what you might call a coconut, un coco, puro brown on the outside, but white interior. You’ve heard that one before no doubt, but maybe as the Oreo version. White folks didn’t always dig me either, even though I could speak English like them and didn’t know hardly any Spanish—English was my first language, I’m currently what scholars like Ofelia Garcia would term an “emergent bilingual.” Still, they would look at me funny when they heard how my mother spoke, when she called me m’ijo, or when she slipped in a few words in Spanish. And yes, there was that confusion, “You Asian?” That still happens.

My trajectory, well, right now it leads me here, at SREB speaking about Latino male success.

Here, so close to the nation’s capital, sharing my story with all of you; me, the sole Mexican American faculty member in the College of Arts of Sciences at the University of Kentucky, sharing my voice and pieces of my narrative trajectory to that position—all the way from Safford, Arizona of southeastern Arizona, my voice to your ears.

Orale, that’s some poetic stuff que no? But I want to stop and think about opportunity, and tell you what opportunities, oportunidades, have meant for me as a Latino male . . . and my family.

You see, I’m a first-generation college student, a second-generation U.S. citizen, the son of Mexican immigrants who didn’t graduate high school, but who always worked. Always, always worked. Multiple jobs: mining copper, driving a school bus, cleaning doctor’s offices, banks, houses, the chamber of commerce, and a movie theater, landscaping, babysitting, selling tamales and tortillas to our white neighbors, and repairing clothes and radios. Where did I get my work ethic?

By example, from mentors, from my parents, from their strengths, and from their shoulders. From their work, they taught me to work, and though my work is different than theirs, for some more prestigious and even desirable, I see the dignity of my parents’ lives, and I recognize the family effort involved to get me where I am, to maximize opportunities presented to my generation that were formerly unavailable to previous generations.

My parents’ work became opportunities for me, even despite various obstacles—financial and academic. Fortunately for me, attending college brought me into contact with mentors, with teachers, counselors, academic outreach professionals, professors, and other students. My education allowed me to expand my networks by having dialogues with people who understood what the opportunity of going to college meant for students like me, and how hard I was willing to work. Dialogues open discussions, and the foster spaces for sharing stories and wisdom, feedback learning from one another, as well as sometimes debate, conflict, perhaps controversy, but a safe space where questions can be openly asked.

Let me pause here, and turn to a poem written by a Latino male I know named Ricardo Perez.

Ricardo’s a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s a member of the school’s Latino Outreach Leaders club. The Latino Outreach Leaders, or LOL, are a student-led organization that performs outreach into the Bluegrass region. LOL’s objective is to empower and inspire Latinos to stay in school and pursue their educational goals. Ricardo was one of the 18 LOL students who co-authored the LOL book “Living Out Loud: Our Stories, Our Struggles.” The book is available for $10 if you are interested. This is his poem “don’t cross the line,” which he told me was the first poem he had written that wasn’t for a class.

                        don’t cross the line

si, nosotros crusamos la frontera.

pero that doesn’t give you the right to cross the line and judge us

we are an example of people fighting for happiness.

We can do anything we want as long as we put our mind to it.

            Si se puede

You call us lazy

Say we come here to do nothing but have anchor babies

But without us you wouldn’t have America, you wouldn’t have our labor

This nation was built on immigrant blood

Mi famila y yo hemos hecho de este apis

Tu piensas that only because I come from somewhere else I have no

Right to succeed in life.

Give me a notebook and a pencil, I’ll write you my story.

When you read it, you’ll realize that my life isn’t easy and if you live it

You’d be grateful not to have lived what I’ve lived.

Si quieren que seamos major en este pais, denos la oportunidad

De demonstratles de lo que somos capaces.

Give me the opportunity to show you that I can be as great as you, as your parents, and as your president

I am capable of doing everything you can do, but it’s harder for me

Why? Because of obstacles history threw at me.

Don’t throw me obstacles throw me opportunities and you’ll see what I can do.

solo quiero triunfar,

y ahora me quieren deportar

y yo no quiero trabajar,

yo voy a luchar, yo voy a triunfar.

Ya nomas.

I feel like I should translate those last words: “I only want to triumph, and now they want to deport me, and I don’t want to work, I want to fight, I will triumph. Enough already.” Ricardo’s passionate poem shares his anxieties about citizenship and opportunities to succeed in the United States. He writes in the poem about his desire to express himself, and to share his story—and I argue establishes a voice that calls seeking responses. “Give me a notebook and a pencil,” he writes, “I’ll write you my story. When you read it you’ll realize that my life isn’t easy.” The sharing of struggle is important for him, but as someone who has experienced struggles—similar to Ricardo’s in fact—I can say that the sharing of these experiences, of collective struggle, is the first place for healing, and for strategizing a plan for action, with the right mentors of course.

But let’s look at these lines near the end: “don’t throw me obstacles throw me opportunities and you’ll see what I can do.” Ricardo challenges his audience for equity, powerfully calling upon and critiquing a tradition of exclusion. Just before these lines he writes “I am capable of doing everything you can do, but it’s harder for me. Why? Because of obstacles history threw at me.” Ricardo acknowledges both agency and social constraint, but expresses his own potential and confidence to meet challenges imposed upon him. He is indeed a capable young man, someone who has the strengths of his family behind him supporting him emotionally. Academically, he has reached out to me as a mentor. Of course I’ve responded.

I’m on the opposite side of the mentorship dynamic now. From mentee to mentor. It’s young men like Ricardo who remind me of my duty as a faculty member to mentor to establish relationships of confianza or trust with students that demonstrate a human connection, or a human face representative of the institution, even those that have historically thrown obstacles at Latino males. As a mentor, I see the importance of confianza connecting students to one another, but also to faculty and opportunities for professional development.

I have begun this presentation with the personal, with me, but I want to extend into something somewhat academic here.

I want to make an argument to you all, an argument about how dialogue, sharing stories, sharing common hardships, all wound with the relationship fostered through sustained mentorship based on confianza. I want to make four points that not only describe areas of intervention for Latino male academic success, but make four points about opportunities Latino males deserve. Latino male students deserve 1) quality mentorship relationships, relationships that are meaningful for both mentees and mentors, 2) institutional support to ensure their success, 3) opportunities for professional development, and 4) spaces for dialoging with students sharing similar experiences. These four aspects shape the success of Latino male students and can foster pivotal moments, or academic interventions that leave lasting impacts by transforming social and psychological orientations toward academic achievement. Pivotal moments can open academic pathways, where students can envision themselves, and their trajectories, where they are now, where they want to be, and drawing from their past to build a future.

I want to give you some context about Latino males in the commonwealth of Kentucky—which like much of the South has seen a tremendous increase in its Latino/Hispanic population. On this slide, you can see a few numbers. The first point notes that in 2010, Latinos composed 3% of Kentucky’s population. That sounds miniscule, but when you consider the next point, you see how tremendous it is. From 2000-2010, the state’s Latino population increased 122%, and the youth population 165%. Like much of the South, the 1990s and onward have seen remarkable growth of Latino communities, especially Mexican immigrant communities. During the same years, 2000-2010, Latino male enrollment at the University of Kentucky increased by 180%. This is promising, except when we look at the data from the secondary level. 62% of Kentucky’s Latino young men are graduating, 7% lower than their White male classmates.

I share these numbers to offer a quick profile, but also to hint at the urgency of what I’m speaking or regarding the previous four points of intervention. The first you may recall is mentorship.

Good mentors are hard to find. Mentors for students teach behaviors associated with effective participation in educational institutions, strategic navigation of school processes, and resilient coping with forces that hinder school success. They are both advisers and advocates. Indeed, mentors are special people, and they come in many forms, but they are not born—mentors are made. Mentors must be trained and coached, but they must also have a personal investment—a sense of trust and bonding with students, which comes from sharing stories. Not only sharing stories, however, but listening and learning to listen to students without judging them, their parents, their social class, race, ethnicity, or immigration status. Mentorship is a relationship, strengthened by honesty and nurtured over a consistent and extended period of time. With time mentors also learn how to mentor, and learn to advocate for  students, to “throw them opportunities” as they advocate for student success. Yet mentorship connected to schooling, especially for Latino male students, is most effective with institutional support.

Institutional support ensures that internal support systems are in place for Latino males, and recognizes that these students “matter.” Internal support systems must promote engagement and encourage success, but also mentorship and dialogues. The investment begins, as I mentioned before, with space for students, a safe space to dialogue. Dialogues, however, are not necessary among students and mentors only, however. They need to happen among faculty and staff who must learn cultural competence. Since 2000, this has been a pressing issue for the state of Kentucky, a state nearly 90% White with a relatively recent influx of Latinos.

Related to institutional support is professional development. During dialogues with Latino males at the UK, the Black and Latino Male Initiative realized that students wanted more contact with faculty to learn about opportunities for networking, how to professionalize, and learning skills about how to be “an insider” in their respected fields. What they want, you see, is what you all have here. You see how much work has gone into planning this event, and the number of people invested in you here. Professional development can happen through workshops, but also in working with students. The student in the photo here, Roberto, is speaking at a conference at the University of Arizona. He presented his story about gaining his citizenship status. Roberto is a Dreamer, and a colleague and I asked him to be a part of a panel during a conference. We arranged funds for him to travel, and we assisted him with his presentation. He had never presented before—but let me assure you, he killed it.

Before I conclude, I want to speak for just a minute about dialogues. The dialogues in the BLMI project at UK are central. They happen in a safe space, which is important. The space shapes conversations, the arrangement of tables and chairs, the ability to see and hear one another when speaking, and the assurance that what gets said stays in the room, and any topic is open for discussion.

The power of dialogue happens in listening and responding, in sharing and building community. Students build community with one another as they share their experiences, their challenges, but also pivotal moments in their lives and educations. Their stories can be transformative for others, while also reinforcing community, and academic self-perceptions and involvement. For Black and Latino males in dialogues with one another, this can also build bridges among folks to find similarities but also ask questions.

I’m going to end on that note, but I want to summarize the found points once more, as you see here. Mentorship, institutional support, professional development, and dialogues. Yes, all important for “throwing opportunities” at Latino males. But I want to speak just very briefly about an example that hits on a point I just made about building bridges between Black and Latino males.

During one BLMI dialogue session (which happen monthly) we had a “barbershop.” We invited a local barber to cut hair while we had dialogues. The event was a success because students and faculty got their haircut. But my favorite part of the event was observing the dialogues about hair between Latino and Black students. “Do Latinos get fades?” was one question from an African American student. “Why are barbershops important for African Americans?” was one question from a Latino.

Let the dialogues ensue, right?

Thank you for your time, and if you would like to speak more about what I talked about today, please send me an email or stop me to chat if you see me. Gracias a ustedes.