Researchers highlight success stories of Mexican-descent college students

Stephanie Koons
November 13, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — First-generation, Mexican-descent college students in the United States face significant barriers to academic engagement and achievement, according to a Penn State College of Education researcher. Nonetheless, many of those students have overcome those obstacles — such as racism, marginalization, anti-immigration sentiment and poverty — by utilizing various forms of cultural capital, social capital and institutional resources to achieve academic success.

“I think it’s these most painful experiences that can empower communities to maintain hope, resist inequality and access resources to succeed academically,” said Gilberto Q. Conchas, the Wayne K. and Anita Woolfolk Hoy Endowed Professor of Education in the Department of Education Policy Studies.

Gilberto Conchas

Gilberto Conchas

IMAGE: Provided

Conchas and Nancy Acevedo, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Technology at California State University, San Bernardino, chronicle the experiences of first-generation, Mexican-descent college students who have overcome the hurdles on their path to success ​in a new book, "The Chicana/o/x Dream: Hope, Resistance and Educational Success," published by Harvard Education Press. In their book, Conchas and Acevedo elevate the voices of students at both a research university and at a community college to reveal key issues and factors impacting and shaping the students’ academic journeys.

“Using interviews, testimonios and Chicana feminist theories, we address those institutional mechanisms that shape the aspirations, expectations and achievements of Chicana/o/x students who grew up in marginalized communities and successfully navigated unequal structures,” Conchas said. 

The book’s title is a play on the notion of the American Dream, he said, adding that “it is Indigenous people, enslaved people, and immigrants that built this country.” According to Conchas, contemporary immigration from Mexico has historically been a divisive issue resulting in people of Mexican descent being disenfranchised through the lack of access to education and their relegation to menial labor. The oppression of people of Mexican descent, he added, was symbolized in President Donald Trump’s insistence on building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

“Fundamentally, in the book, we help define the heart and soul of tomorrow’s America, and really try to elucidate that college students maintain hope, enact resistance and succeed against injustice, in the name of social justice for the betterment of all communities, hence the Chicana/o/x Dream,” Conchas said.

One of the most important factors that Conchas and Acevedo found for aiding the success of first-generation, Mexican-descent college students was feeling a sense of belonging in higher education institutions. That sense of belonging, Conchas said, can be cultivated through a professor (particularly if the student was able to acquire an internship or be part of a research group), ethnic studies classes or an individual, such as a guidance counselor, who empathizes with the students’ experiences as children of immigrants.

“There were a variety of mechanisms that have direct implications for higher education administrators to develop a critical consciousness that dismantles inequality, avoids replicating marginalizing structures, and (re)envisions a socially just reality,” Conchas said.

Conchas and Acevedo offer key recommendations for higher education administrators to tackle inequality head-on. It is simply not enough to enroll students of color in higher education; they must foster a sense of belonging among Mexican-American students, recognizing that “these populations are not monolithic” and honoring the “lived experiences from which these young adults come.” While diversity and inclusion efforts are common goals in higher education, Conchas said, structures need to be in place that enable students from diverse ethnoracial backgrounds to persist and graduate.

“How do we begin to disrupt the unequal spaces in education?” he said. “How do we create a diverse culture that includes a sense of belonging, a sense of hope, and a sense of resistance to keep these populations enrolled and successful?”

Conchas’ interest in educational inequality is closely intertwined with his personal history and ethnoracial identity. As a first-generation, Mexican-descent student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he said he was “bombarded with all these great minds.” While he identifies as a “proud Affirmative Action recipient,” he added that his preK-12 schooling “didn’t prepare [him] for the rigor of such an elite institution.” One of Conchas’ goals as a researcher is to help educators dismantle silos and set up students of color for success early on.

“There’s a divide between what educators do in preK-12 and knowing how to navigate higher education systems,” he said. “We need to bridge that dysfunction. How do you break down those silos?” The recommendations in Conchas’and Acevedo’s book speak to what educators can do in preK-12 and higher education. Those recommendations include institutional processes, community-engagement efforts and family targeted practices. 

When asked which finding from his book surprised him most, Conchas replied, “I was surprised how Chicana/o/x students persisted in the American educational landscape that is characterized by its coloniality and achieved hope, resistance and school success.” However, Conchas stated that he “was not totally surprised that the next generation of Chicana/o/x students will, yet again, continue the historical legacy of resistance to marginalizing efforts.”

Conchas further divulged that his and his coauthor’s own educational journeys have contributed to their efforts to foster college access and success for current and future generations of Latina/o/x students. “Our contexts have fostered hope. We have learned how to resist. Through our research, teaching, service and activism, we develop different opportunities for Latina/o/x students and other students of color to succeed in education and beyond.”

Conchas joined the Penn State College of Education in fall 2020, after previously serving as professor of educational policy and social context and founding director of Community Engagement & Student Success at the University of California, Irvine. He described his most recent book as being very much centered on the experiences of first-generation Chicana/o/x students in California. In his new role as the Wayne K. and Anita Woolfolk Hoy Endowed Professor of Education, one of his major goals is to expand his studies of the challenges of Latinx populations to the other side of the United States.

As communities across the country are increasingly seeing an influx of Latinx immigrants, he said, they will be forced to deal with the questions of how to embrace, support and integrate those populations. In addition, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest, “it becomes ever more important that educational leaders, faculty and staff understand the implications of intersectionality as Chicana/o/x students, and other students of color, engage in distinct learning environments during uncertain times.”

“One of the reasons I came to Penn State is to explore these issues outside of California, to see what Latinx means on the East Coast and the New Latinx South,” Conchas said. “What I really want to do is to explore the Latinx diaspora globally.”

Conchas is the author and coauthor of nine books, including "The Color of Success: Race and High-Achieving Urban Youth" (2006); "Small Schools and Urban Youth: Using the Power of School Culture to Engage Youth" (2008); and "StreetSmart SchoolSmart: Urban Poverty and the Education of Boys of Color" (2012). His previous books have dealt with educational inequality in the preK-12 system; “The Chicana/o/x Dream: Hope, Resistance, and Educational Success” is his first book that explores educational inequality in the context of higher education.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021