The Three Dimensions of Place-Based Learning at Hispanic-Serving Institutions

Benjamin Waddell
Associate Professor  
Adams State University

Pauline Victoria Martinez
Research Consultant

The best predictor of a nation’s future is found in the classroom. In this sense, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) are in a unique position to shape the future of the US.

As of early 2016, there were 435 HSI-eligible institutions in the U.S., and while their student bodies may share many common linguistic, religious, and cultural traits, they are also unique. Like Dr. Leslie D. Gonzales, we believe that incorporating the rich diversity of Hispanics into the HSI mission is as important as recognizing the group’s shared values. Curriculum is most effective when it takes into account the specific history and culture of students. To this end, we propose place-based learning (PBL) as a means of incorporating pan-ethnic diversity into the HSI mission.

PBL encourages institutions to synchronize their educational missions with local traditions, history, and culture. PBL pushes universities and colleges to focus on developing human capital alongside local stakeholders. Previous research demonstrates that education of this nature has the potential to improve students’ self-esteem and confidence, especially when it come to historically underserved student bodies like those at HSIs and HBCUs. In this sense, we believe that PBL has the potential to empower multicultural and multiethnic communities while promoting global awareness. This is particularly important in a nation that is expected to be majority-minority as soon as 2050.

There are three core dimensions to PBL.

  • Dimension 1 requires HSIs to recognize the value of local knowledge and experiences by promoting learning within local communities as a means of forging a deeper connection between students and residents, and in this manner, validating local knowledge.
  • Dimension 2 calls for firm investments in human capital at the local level in order to promote quality leadership within HSI communities.
  • Dimension 3 supports the preservation of local culture and history by promoting student-led research and learning within the communities connected to HSIs.

Our experience with PBL stems from ongoing student-led research in the San Luis Valley (SLV), which is situated in Southern Colorado, and is served by Colorado’s first HSI, Adams State University (ASU). Our work, which is generously supported by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Title V, and the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, began in 2014 with Dr. Waddell’s Field Studies in Sociology course. The class allows students to identify local issues, which they subsequently have the opportunity to research through the course. To this end, each fall we identify a specific set of issues, and then, in the spring semester we interview local residents about the subject. The interviews provide students with the opportunity to learn about the local community through conversations with residents while also participating in the preservation of knowledge for future generations.

To date we have interviewed over 30 residents of the San Luis Valley. We created a short documentary with our initial footage, titled, Voices of the Valley. We are currently creating an online archive of our interviews, which will allow local educators to use our work in their classrooms.

We are in the second year of our project, and are researching the compounding effects of discriminatory lending within our community. Our students are conducting interviews that explore the effects of discrimination and land loss on Hispanic communities in the SLV. Our latest project reveals how policymakers and educators can work together to support PBL. In addition to producing a feature-length documentary, we are creating a series of educational modules complete with full-length interviews and curriculum for local educators. Our project aligns with Colorado HB16-1036, which will facilitate multicultural education in Colorado by:

  • Ensuring equal educational opportunity and achievement.
  • Support young people of color by ensuring they see themselves and their ancestors represented.
  • Challenge assumptions about what leaders look like and who contribute to the development of our country.
  • Create stronger, healthier communities.

Through our research we have found that people have many stereotypes when it comes to rural communities, and in particular, rural communities of color. Generally, the official story is one that focuses on poverty, lack of resources, health disparities, and substance abuse. As our work reveals, however, such narratives are extremely pernicious, as they push aside the rich cultural capital woven into the social fabric of rural Hispanic communities. Our hope is that our work will contribute to empowering the Hispanic community while improving education outcomes amongst Hispanic students at our institution.

In summary, we believe that PBL has the potential to weave local value into HSIs, which should help educators better serve their student bodies. In particular, we believe that HSIs should make efforts to incorporate PBL into their general education courses, which will help weave the stories of local Hispanic populations into the educational experience of all students. Through PBL, and the lens of common human dignity, HSIs can highlight the pan-ethnic intersections that make their respective educational missions so unique. In doing so, we believe that Hispanic students will be more likely to identify themselves in Higher Education curriculum, which should contribute to improving educational outcomes at HSIs.

Dr. Ben Waddell is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Adams State University. He teaches in the areas of racial and ethnic relations, education, social psychology, and social inequality. He researches issues related to inequality, including migration, human development, and crime. For more on his work please see:

Tori is a research consultant in the San Luis Valley. She specializes in community and cultural research. She also writes for several organizations and has a personal blog titled, “Rethinking Rural Women.” Tori uses ethnography as a vehicle to examine and share people's life stories.