Scholar Spotlight: Dr. Gina Garcia (Part II)

PART II – In the first part of the interview, we spoke a lot about Dr. Garcia’s path to academia and advice she had for doctoral students related to navigating the job market. Part II of the interview is dedicated to discussing her research on Hispanic Serving Institutions and her thoughts on the role of universities in building a culture that is conducive to students from diverse backgrounds. 

 Daphne: Your dissertation and some of your recently published work specifically examines the ways in which Hispanics serve at institutions actually serve Hispanic or Latinx populations. What do you think were some of your most important or surprising findings in terms of specifically examining the Hispanic servant institution context?

 Dr. Garcia: I’m obviously still doing a lot of this work, and this work is really super complicated. I’m working on a manuscript and it’s making me think in all sorts of different ways about the way we frame research. I have framed my research in what I call an anti-deficit framework. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Shaun Harper’s work, but he talks about an anti-deficit framework for [studying] students [of color]. Rather than blaming students, specifically students of color and students in urban settings, for not graduating or whatever it may be that challenges their chance for success in schools, you look at the larger picture – what are the systemic issues, what is going on within the organization or within society in general. I do that with organizations, which in my case is HSIs, because a lot of them are viewed from a deficit perspective.

By that I mean that HSIs tend to be under resourced and they provide broad access to students who are under-prepared and who wouldn’t get admitted to Penn or Harvard, or Pitt, or whatever elite institution. HSIs give these students access to higher education and create opportunities for populations of color; but with that then there are challenges. I just saw an article about UT San Antonio being called a “dropout mill,” I believe. That’s a horrible way to frame an institution, without considering any other factors, like what kind of students are entering, what kid of challenges they have faced, or about how they’re creating opportunities for students. Some students may never go into higher ed if it weren’t for HSIs. I use that framework to think about what is good about these institutions. What can we find good about them? Could they do better in certain ways? Sure, but maybe they’re doing well in other ways.

Daphne: Tell me a little bit more about your manuscript.

Dr. Garcia: In the manuscript I’m working on right now, I’m looking at six institutions in the mid-West, and two out of the six do really well with creating a culture that enhances students’ identities and their experiences. They have ethnic studies programs, they have student organizations that cater to racial/ethnic populations, they have resources for undocumented students; programs that are shown to then increase student success. I try to look at it in that way, rather than thinking like, “Wow, this institution is doing really poorly and they’re not graduating students. They have really low six-year graduation rates.” Instead, I look at what else they’re doing for minoritized populations.

I don’t know if I would call that the most surprising thing I have found, but I think by doing that I’m pushing against the current, because it’s easy to say, “These institutions aren’t doing a very good job, and they’re not graduating students. They have a 20% six-year graduation rate.” Yes, they’re doing poorly in that sense, but what else do they do and how else can they enhance people’s experiences? It’s pushing against the dominant discourse about what higher education institutions are supposed to do, which is graduate students. I believe they should, but I believe they should do other things, and they have to be willing to do other things. People get things out of institutions of higher education even if they don’t graduate. We want them to graduate, yes, but even just going to an institution of higher education for a year, or two years, or three years, even if you don’t finish, you get something from that experience.

Daphne: I think that’s actually really important, I feel like that often comes up into the debate about other minority-serving institutions such as HBCUs and whether they actually have a purpose. What I often hear from students that have attended is that it’s much more than the classroom experience, it’s much more than just the books, that there is an enriching experience that does more than just stimulate their minds. It’s about an identity thing and a self-esteem thing. I really think that’s really important research. I do feel like there’s often a deficit framework or a deficit mindset when it comes to minority-serving institutions. I think that’s really important.

Dr. Garcia: Yeah.

 Daphne: How do you, or have you, or will you actively work to build relationships with these institutions to ensure that your recommendations on developing an institutional culture that’s relevant and enhancing to Latinx students potentially becomes model for them to improve not just academic outcomes but some of the cultural aspects of the institution?

 Dr. Garcia: I saw that question on the [list of] questions that you sent me. I really like that question because I think about that a lot, I think about participatory action research and how the research program I have is really set up to do that kind of work because it is very policy relevant – particularly at the institutional level. In [the field of] higher education, I would say that a majority of scholars study students. By studying the organization itself; it’s a different level of analysis and I think that’s why it does have the ability to have implications at the policy level.

 As I think about participatory action research and how I can become more engaged with the institutions, I’m starting to do a little more of that work and working with the sites to not only collect data but also contribute back to them. I’m still working on it, because I don’t know what that looks like, exactly. At one of my current sites, I going to collect some data and while I’m there I am doing some different things, meeting with people who are interested in advancing this HSI identity. I’m doing a talk; a brown bag type of talk, and just engaging with the [people in the] environment. Normally to do a talk I would charge, but I’m doing it as a form of reciprocity; I want to give back to the institution how I can – and this institution is struggling financially due to lack of funding at the state level. So I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like, but I want to do [more of] that.

I’m really interested in working with emerging HSIs, which are those institutions that haven’t reached the HSI level. I think that’s important because once you have 25% Latinx students, it’s too late, right? You need to start thinking about that sooner. I mean that’s a quarter of your population! That’s a ton, right? You should have noticed this population a long time ago. You should notice that large of a population when they’re at 10%, 10% is a lot already; it’s enough to get noticed. So I want to do a lot of that work with emerging HSIs; I’m starting to think about that. I’m trying to figure out how to start working with emerging HSIs before they even get to HSI status and help them think about how do you create a culture that enhances the educational experiences of students and their educational outcomes based on what we know from the research.

[Any ways], I love [your] question, I don’t know that I’ve put in a good answer because I don’t think I am fully there yet, but it’s something that I think about a lot and that I’m hoping that that’s the direction my research is going.

Daphne: I was thinking about the demographic changes that we will experience in the US over the next 30 years in terms of the increasing Latinx population and how our college campuses in general, not just ones that began as HSIs, will probably see those noticeable increases. Do you think that might change the definition of HSIs? Would your work expand? What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Garcia: I have a colleague of mine who [also] studies HSIs ask me one time, “What should we call non-HSIs?” and we tend to call them non-HSIs because it still places HSIs at the center. My response was initially that, in our research, we [should] call them “going-to-be-HSIs “because that’s where we’re at. The population is changing so quickly that a ton of institutions are going to be HSIs. We’re seeing that happen, the percentage of institutions that identify as HSIs each year goes up 1-2% every single year. [The number] has been [increasing] since I started studying them back in 2010. They represented 8% of all postsecondary institutions, or maybe it was 6 at the time; now they represent 13% of all secondary institutions. It’s going up every single year. No other minority-serving institution is doing that. So everybody’s going to start thinking about this soon enough.

I also think that at the federal level, because these are federally designated institutions, I don’t think the federal government is always going to be able to offer, or maybe not always want to offer, the funding that’s available. It might always have that designation but I think it’s so much more than the federal funding or designation. [Being an HSI] really is just about how you serve minoritized populations. Typically HSIs also enroll very large populations of other racialized groups, including Black students and Asian students. So you might have 25% Latinx students but 50% of the population is students of color; 50% of your population is students of color, 50% is white so they’re not really predominantly white institution either. They’re very compositionally diverse institutions. So I don’t think it’s about a federal designation, I don’t think it’s about being called an HSI, I think the larger issue is that all institutions of higher ed need to consider my recommendations related to developing in institutional culture that’s relevant and enhancing to minoritized populations.

Daphne: Yeah.

Dr. Garcia: So when it comes down to me making policy recommendations, or if I give a talk, I always bring it back up to that level – particularly if I’m giving a talk, even at my own institution, where HSI’s are the farthest thing from their head. Pitt’s never going to be an HSI; they’re not going to be an HSI because there’s not even a population anywhere around us. But I always bring it up to this larger level because it doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about how you serve minoritized students because you do; all institutions have to. It’s really just about how you serve minoritized groups.

Daphne: In the first part of the interview, you gave lots of advice about the job market. Is there any general advice you’d like to share as we close out?

I would stress, and I sort of talked about this when I talked about me having a peer group that I wrote with, it’s just realizing that this doesn’t have to be a lonely path. I feel like research is sometimes seen as a solo sport, and I don’t think it is. I think it should be a team sport, I think it should be a team effort, and I think to be successful, we need each other – particularly people of color. I talked about my cohort, my faculty of color cohort, and that’s how we see it – that we’re all going to get tenure, that we’re not in competition with each other, that even though we were all on the job market together, we didn’t see it as being in competition with each other. We’re all going to make it together and so there’s no trying to one up each other.

We celebrate each others’ successes all the time. We have a private [Facebook] group, we post there, and we celebrate each other. We come together at conferences and we have dinner together. We just see it very much as, “we’re in this together.” I think that’s important, particularly for scholars of color. It’s not a competition, don’t compete with your peers, don’t think that you can’t celebrate — that by you celebrating someone else’s success it means you’re not going to be successful. We are all going to be successful and there’s room for all of us to be successful. I think that’s important — that it’s not seen as a competitive thing; that we should support each other.

Daphne: That’s awesome and you are so right about building communities. Thank you for the advice.

 Daphne: To wrap up, we like to ask scholars what they are current reading so that we can add the names to The Ebony Tower book list. So what are you currently reading? Also, I’ve interviewed a few people and they were like, “Well, since I spend all day reading, I actually watch this TV show,” so we can say it’s TV show or reading list. (laughs)

Dr. Garcia: I know, right? I was going to say, “Does it have to be reading for pleasure?” because I don’t think I’m reading anything for pleasure besides children’s books. I can do a TV show; I just finished watching “The Get Down.” All people of color should watch that. It’s amazing, you need to watch it. It’s so fun. The first episode is kind of a little cheesy and you’re not really sure what’s going on but then it gets really, really good.

I also just watched an HBO mini series called “The Night Of.” Me and my partner tend to watch shows that tend to complicate identities of people of color and that one definitely brings in some interesting elements by focusing on a person of color who is accused of murder and is racialized, of course, throughout the process and what that looks like. Whenever I [watch] anything for pleasure it’s usually focused on some sort of, the main character is going to be a person of color and it’s going to be usually still about some sort of issues that we’re dealing with in society [around race].

As far as the books I read for pleasure, again, they are children’s books. I usually always read – my children are mixed race – so a lot of books that we read are about being mixed race. My children are Black and Latinx; I’m of Mexican background. We read books about being Black, we read books about being a Latinx, and we read books about being mixed. We very much stress to our kids that there is no halves here, there’s no quarter-this and quarter-that you’re 100% Black or 100% Latinx You’re just a full 100% person. All of these identities are fully within you. Those are the books I read for pleasure while still educating my children. We read about race, we talk about race a lot in my house, even with my 4 year old. We talk about consent and we read books about things like that; even my 4 year old [knows] what consent means — so sort of disrupting patriarchy and violence against women, within our home. So yeah, I don’t know that those are going to make it onto the list but those are the things I read and am watching currently.

Daphne: I’m sure many people will appreciate what you just said about identity. The population of mixed race individuals continues to grow and the idea that they don’t have to partition their identity is very powerful. That’s awesome.

Thank you very much for taking the time out of your precious writing day to speak with me. I have no doubt that our readers will benefit from your insight.

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