Sunday, September 15, 2013

Not to be Frozen Out! Latinas Belong in Academia

            This week I had a disturbing conversation with a brilliant young Latina who just graduated from college. She was almost in tears recounting interactions she recently had with two White women to whom she was reaching out regarding her desire to apply to law school.  Although neither of them directly told her that they did not believe she was capable of getting admitted to and completing law school, they were not friendly or encouraging either.  One of them handed her the admission information carelessly and barely explained the process when asked.  The other woman had been a supervisor of this Latina for an internship and did not share any words of encouragement either and was actually quite standoffish, which the Latina found odd considering she had worked with her closely for quite some time. 
            These interactions seemed harmless and I guess we should not expect warm interactions from people we hardly know in academia, but this young Latina sat in sadness explaining that she had a “feeling” that she might have been treated poorly because she was Latina.  She wondered if maybe it was her Spanish accent or that they thought because she was Latina she would not do well on the LSAT. I wish I could have told her positively that these were not reasons for their lack of encouragement.  I also assured her that her feelings were valid and that she was not imagining this “cold” treatment that seemed to want to freeze her out of academia.
            What upset me the most about her story was that I know how highly competent this Latina is and how much potential she has for changing the world. During her undergraduate years I had the pleasure of watching her grow in her leadership, confidence and scholarship, having written an excellent senior thesis comparing Latin American and Middle Eastern women. It makes me angry that these White women do not realize that to this young Latina, they represent authority figures in academia who with their indifferent interactions, made her feel like she did not belong in an advanced degree program.    
            This young Latina’s story really touched me in a way I did not realize until I got home.  It reminded me of a White male dean at my graduate institution who made me feel the same way about my potential success in a Ph.D. program.  Many years ago, when I was about to complete my Master’s degree, I liked my faculty so much, that I decided to stay at the same university for the Ph.D.  I went over to the main office to ask for an application and information about admission.  This dean was the only person in the office and smiled at me curiously when I asked him to please let me know the process to apply for the Ph.D. program. Without asking me for my academic background or credentials, he said to me, “you know it’s really difficult to get into a Ph.D. program.  You shouldn’t set yourself up for disappointment.” 
            I did not know what to say.  I just froze and took the paperwork that he was reluctantly handing me with the admission information.  I wish I could have told him how I graduated from college in three years with the honor of cum laude and senior leadership awards.  I wish I had the courage to tell him that I was about to complete my Master’s degree at that same institution with a 3.9 GPA and that more than half my courses were already doctoral classes.  Would that have changed his perception of what a potential Ph.D. student looks like?  Maybe.  Maybe not. All I know is that I was so upset, I went back to my apartment and completed the application, personal statement and sent out the requests for recommendations that same night.  I not only got into the program, but completed all of the coursework and passed the comprehensive exams and my GPA is still a 3.9 as I continue to work on my dissertation.       
            Unfortunately, I almost allowed that one White male dean to fill me with self-doubt and taint my whole experience at a wonderful institution that has taken great care of me as an employee, student and scholar. He was wrong in how he treated me and with his discouraging words almost froze me out of academia and an advanced degree. However, since I am a Libra, I have to balance out that bad interaction with the overall amazing experience I had with a very encouraging and nurturing faculty at my graduate institution, for which I have a special love and affection.  When I am on that campus I feel like I am home, which was true at one time since I actually lived on campus when I worked there in Residence Life.  Just as there are individuals in the academic pathway who may cause Latinas to doubt their presence in academia, thankfully, there are more individuals who believe in us and participate actively in ensuring our success.

              I want the brilliant Latina I mentioned in the introduction to know that the women who treated her so coldly are also wrong.  I am positive that not only will she get into law school and find many supporters, she will be successful in completing her J.D. and she will go on to do great things – like she is already doing!  Pa’ lante hermanita!