Developing an Institutional Culture That is Relevant and Enhancing to Latina/o Students

Gina A. Garcia
Assistant Professor
University of Pittsburgh

With the growing interest in addressing the question about what it means for Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) to SERVE Latina/o students, I argue that HSIs must develop a culture that is relevant to Latina/o students. Culture includes the shared assumptions and deeply embedded practices of the institution, and is often taken for granted, becoming the “norm” on campus. Historically, institutions of higher education have not had a culture that values Latinas/os in this way. But HSIs are at a point where they must become culturally relevant to Latinas/os, or what I call Latina/o-enhancing, meaning students not only see themselves in the institutional practices, but develop a deeper sense of self along the way. Since culture takes time to change, I offer a few suggestions here.

Embed Special Programs into ALL Practices. There are a number of special initiatives and programs that HSIs have implemented in order to better serve Latina/o students. Some of the best examples can be found at the Excelencia in Education Growing What Works Database. While these programs are important for retaining Latina/o students, creating a culture that is relevant to Latinas/os would mean that these “special” programs are no longer required, because all programs are relevant to Latinas/os. In my own research I found that student support programs that have historically served minoritized students, such as Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), can serve as the model for all advising practices on campus. In reality, if the practices that programs like EOP have adopted are good for the retention of marginalized students, they are likely good for all students, no matter what their background. Programs that have traditionally served marginalized students, therefore, must be scaled up and embedded within the normal institutional structures. Furthermore, programs that are specifically for Latina/o students may no longer be necessary. Instead, the elements that make programs “special” should be incorporated into campus-wide programs that serve all students. For example, if the Latina/o graduation ceremony has a mariachi band for musical entertainment, then there should be a mariachi band at the main graduation event. This is important because programs that cater specifically to Latina/o students cannot accommodate the growing population of Latina/o students. Ultimately, many students will be left out unless all programs become relevant to Latinas/os.

Develop curricula that are culturally relevant and enhancing. Urban education scholars have spent decades writing about the importance of developing curricular and pedagogical practices that are centered on the experiences of minoritized students. These types of curricula not only recognize the voices and experiences of Students of Color, but they encourage critical consciousness and community engagement. The most obvious curricula to model are those found in ethnic studies departments. Unfortunately, research shows that less than 5% of all HSIs have an ethnocentric curriculum (Cole, 2011). Institutions, therefore, must assess their curricula to determine if and where they are offering culturally relevant topics. Latina/o students are much more likely to be engaged in class, be committed to learning, and ultimately be retained if they see themselves represented in their courses. An example may be to incorporate a service-learning component into the engineering curriculum that requires students to develop an environmental justice project within the local Latina/o community. Another example may be to highlight health disparities in the Latina/o community within an epidemiology class.

Train faculty to validate students in the classroom. We know that the demographics of faculty at HSIs are changing at a much slower rate than those of students (Gonzales, 2015). This means that institutions must make it a priority to train all faculty on how to be more inclusive in the classroom. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings has published numerous articles on how to be culturally relevant in the classroom (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1995). Dr. Laura Rendon has been writing about the importance of validating Students of Color for over 20 years, yet very little has changed. Most faculty still lack the training and knowledge necessary to not only validate minoritized students in the classroom, but to enhance Latina/o students sense of self. HSIs must train their faculty to think more critically about how to engage Latina/o students in the classroom while recognizing the cultural knowledge that Latina/o students bring with them to college. This type of training, however, needs to be ongoing, as a one-day workshop or seminar is not enough. Faculty need time to first understand themselves as racialized and cultural beings before they can understand the unique backgrounds and challenges of Latina/o students.

There are numerous ways to embrace a culture where being Latina/o is normal. I challenge HSIs to reimagine what it would be like for all programs and curricula to include the voices and experiences of Latina/o students. It’s time for HSIs to become relevant and enhancing to Latinas/os.

Cole, W. M. (2011). Minority politics and group-differentiated curricula at minority-serving colleges. The Review of Higher Education, 34, 381-422.

Gonzales, L. D. (2015). The horizon of possibilities: How HSI faculty can reshape the production and legitimization of knowledge within academia. In A.-M. Núñez, S. Hurtado & E. Calderón Galdeano (Eds.), Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Advancing research and transformative practices. New York: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that's just good teaching! The cae for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Dr. Gina A. Garcia is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh where she teaches in the Higher Education Management program. Her research centers on issues of diversity in higher education with an emphasis on Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Latina/o students. Dr. Garcia is a proud graduate of an HSI.