Discussion sidebar, with “Latinos and Higher Education”

By Carol Amoruso, HAV Editor


Editor’s NoteArticle continues from last month’s introduction, Navigating Higher Ed for Latinos: Part 2


HAV: [Amherst College president] Anthony Marx is a leading proponent of class/economics-based preferences in enrollment over race/ethnicity or gender-based criteria.  Do you agree, or would you see such a major policy shift as a way of further marginalizing people of color?

RL: I strongly support President Marx’s effort. I am convinced that it will not have a negative impact upon the recruitment of ethnic/racial minorities, nor do I see it as adversely impacting the recruitment of men or women. I am also convinced that it can be done without “sacrificing” the “quality” of our student body in any way. On the contrary, it will bring in untapped talent. There are a lot of wonderful students out there who would benefit enormously from an Amherst education, and who would make Amherst a better place. Until recently, Amherst has done little to recruit such students. As a result, Amherst has remained a place of class privilege as much as its peers, and I would look forward to seeing Amherst bring in students who will break down these barriers. This, in my view, can happen even as Amherst continues to move forward in its recruitment of other underrepresented groups (especially since these various groups can overlap).

What’s elite campus life like for a Latino?  How different is it, if you can generalize, from that for other minorities, such as African-Americans where, to this day, there are instances of isolation, alienation and continued discrimination?

It is unclear whether this question asks about my experience, or whether it invites me to speculate on the students’ experience. I will begin with the students’ experience. The experiences of Latino students here vary dramatically. We have Latino students who range from the economic elite of Latin America and the US, to working class students who, often times, are the first in their families to attend college. I don’t think there is much of an adjustment to be made for upper class Latino students, who made a significant part of our Latino student population (I have no idea on the numbers). The students who are more likely to suffer isolation, alienation and discrimination are the working class Latino students. My impression is that the students who face the greatest challenges in terms of adjustments are those who come from the working class. Amherst has not done enough to address the needs of its working class students in general, and this becomes particularly true in terms of working class Black and Latinos, for whom class issues bleed into racial, ethnic, and cultural concerns.

As an undergrad, what attracted you to Amherst?

When I was in high school (I graduated from high school in 1989), I had not met many people who had ever attended college, other than my high school teachers. My high school (Ysleta High School, in El Paso Texas) had no college advisor, so students who wanted to go to college were largely on their own, aided only by a very small number of supportive teachers who generally did not know much about colleges outside of Texas. They certainly did not know what Amherst College was. I looked at Amherst College because 1) I wanted to experience life in a place very different from where I grew up; 2) I had recently learned about the existence of Liberal Arts colleges, and was enamored with the idea; 3) I read US News and World Report. I had received my ACT scores, and I compared them with the averages of admitted students at various schools ranked by UN&WR. I saw that mine matched those of students in top tier colleges and universities, so I applied to the liberal arts colleges at the top of US News and World Report’s list, as well as the regular list of top Texas institutions. I got in to most places I applied, but after I visited Amherst (thanks to Williams College, which paid for my travel New England so I could visit schools), I felt at home. It was exactly the kind of setting and intellectual challenge I was looking for…and the college was committed to meeting 100% of my economic need, which meant almost the entire cost of attendance.

What role at elite institutions do organizations like la Causa play for Latinos or other minorities?

Groups such as La Causa and the Chicano Caucus are very important to the Latino students here. This varies year to year, as the character of these organizations fluctuates quite a bit. I think they are particularly important for working class students, but also for middle and upper class students seeking community, and for non-Latino students interested in Latino culture.

Do you think the whole system of higher ed—through financial assistance, private sector recruiting, etc.–is attempting to fast-track Latinos into fields (finance, technology, science industry, etc.) that best serve it, ignoring students’ ultimate interests?  Or, are these initiatives merely helping to facilitate for Latinos a more stable, prosperous future?

This does not happen at Amherst, where all things that smack of pre-professional training are shunned in favor of intellectual engagement. This is true for the college as a whole, but also for Latino students. I don’t think Amherst tries to send Latino students, nor any others, into gussied up “technical training.”

Nationally there is a nefarious discourse that seems to permeate discussions concerning working class and minority students; namely, the notion that somehow such students would be better served if they attended lower tier institutions. The logic is that they are in over their heads at places such as Amherst, and thus getting lower grades than if they attended a regional state university that “better suited their needs.” It is a nefarious argument that is not concerned with questions of education, achievement, access or institutional “fit”; rather, it is nothing better than racial and class prejudice.

PEW Center in a 2004 report: Latino youth do not seem to be taking the necessary steps to be admitted to selective colleges and universities. Does this need to be remedied?  If so, how?

I have not read the report. But, in general, I do agree that it is a problem, and that it does need to be remedied. How? There is no easy answer. Schools are failing these students. Part of this is a result of how school funding in this country comes from the local tax base, which assures that the rich get good educations, while the poor get substandard, poorly funded educations. That said, I think that part of the solution must also come from with the Latino community itself. Many Latinos place a premium on the education of their children, but I don’t think that there is as widespread emphasis on the need for a quality education. More importantly, because of inequalities within our society, many Latino parents, especially those of working class background, are not aware of how to go about assuring such an education for their children, and many children, subjected repeatedly to racism and low expectations, underestimate not only their own abilities, but also their own achievements. Latino students who could go to elite schools are never encouraged by their high schools or their parents to apply, and so they have no idea of just how capable they are, or of what doors their level of achievement may be opening for them.

Would you encourage Latinos as a group to seek out selective schools over public 4-year institutions with more open admissions policies and a larger Latino student body?

Absolutely. Every student should apply to the very best schools where he or she might be able to gain admission. In the end, each student will need to choose the school that is the best “fit” for him or her (decided by their gut feelings, not by gatekeepers trying to convince them that their best “fit” is a school with lower expectations). Every high achieving student should be looking at the most selective elite school at which he or she might gain entrance. Moreover, few working class Latino students realize that, because schools such as Amherst, Williams, Yale or Harvard are need blind, it might end up costing them less than the local open-admission four year institution. Going to such a school can allow such students to escape the cycle of continued low expectations and underfunded educational resources. They will enter a setting where a lot is expected of them and where the resources are available for them to success. I have no doubt that such students will continue to meet or exceed expectations.

Granting that you’re a “Mexicanist,” do you feel that Mexican and Mexican-American studies dominate and ghettoize the broader field of Latino studies, leaving such disciplines as Puerto Rican or Caribbean studies to small enclaves in post-secondary schools within those communities?

That is true in California, Texas, and even in Chicago, but it not at East Coast institutions. In this region, a great deal of attention is paid to Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans, since these groups are more visible regionally, and they also tend to make up a larger part of our Latino student body. In this part of the country no one ever confuses Latino studies for Chicano studies, as happens out West.


Other Readings of Interest


Carol Amoruso has had several vocational callings over the years. She’s taught young children, run volunteer programs for seniors, had a catering business, designed clothes. Ultimately, she found that nothing engaged and challenged her the way writing has. She’s written every day since childhood, professionally since 1990. Her involvement in the arts, society and politics of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Latin World have been the most inspiring and her work concentrates on those areas. She travels extensively but lives in New York City.

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