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A History of Prejudice Against Latinos in the US Educational System

If Latinas and Latinos are underserved or excluded in the early stages of the educational system, then it is not surprising if they are poorly represented at the opposite end of the system. Latinas and Latinos have historically been underrepresented throughout the educational pipeline, both relative to their share of the population and compared to other ethnic and racial groups. Latina and Latino underrepresentation is not an accident; Latinas and Latinos were historically excluded and marginalized by the American educational system. Before the famous Brown v. Board of Education (1954) desegregation case, the Lemon Grove School District built a segregated two-room schoolhouse in the suburbs of San Diego, California for Latina and Latino children. In January 1931, the principal of Lemon Grove Grammar School physically blocked Latina and Latino students from entering their former school and directed them to the new segregated building. At the state level, legislators introduced a bill to support segregating Latina and Latino students in Lemon Grove (Alvarez, 1986).

The families of the Latina and Latino students sued. When the Superior Court of California in San Diego indicted the board members of the Lemon Grove School District, the board members claimed that they were not trying to maliciously segregate Latina and Latino students. Instead, the trustees justified their actions by claiming that segregation would improve education for Latina and Latino children. By March 1931, the judge ruled that the Lemon Grove School District had violated state laws and ordered desegregation of the grammar school (Alvarez, 1986).

Like the trustees in Southern California, South Texans also defended treating Latina and Latino schoolchildren differently than their White peers. A few years after Brown, the League of United Latin American Citizens sued the Driscoll Consolidated Independent School District for the way it treated Latina and Latino students. The South Texas district made it a practice to hold Latina and Latino children back from advancing beyond the first grade; some children were kept in first grade for up to four years. Although the Driscoll district denied that it had outrightly segregated Latinas and Latinos (all of whom were classified as White under the law), the court found that the district had denied Latina and Latino students equal protection (Godfrey, 2008).

Further Challenges in the Pathway to the PhD

The challenges in primary and secondary schools continue to the undergraduate level. Poor high school preparation leaves many Latinas underprepared for rigorous STEM courses, and makes it difficult for them to succeed so they can pursue doctoral aspirations (Ruiz, 2013). Additionally, a quantitative multi-campus study shows that many colleges and universities, particularly highly selective institutions, have inhospitable climates for women of color. The negative climate of selective institutions is at least partly a function of a lack of ethnic diversity in STEM classrooms, laboratories, and departments (Espinosa, 2011). For example, Latina undergraduates in STEM departments too often lack role models because there are very few Latina graduate students or professors (Espinosa, 2011).

There are several challenges at the undergraduate level that can discourage Latinas from pursuing their post-baccalaureate plans. For example, a mixed-method study of Latinas and Latinos in engineering programs found that they tended to have higher aspirations to attend graduate school after earning bachelors degrees compared to other racial or ethnic groups. Yet, the Latina and Latino engineering undergraduates reported that they were less exposed to information about graduate programs (Gonzalez, 2015). Additionally, students who take on loans to finance baccalaureate studies have lower odds of attending graduate programs. Among Latinas and Latinos, the likelihood of enrolling in post-baccalaureate programs declines as debt levels increase (Malcom & Dowd, 2012).

Scholars have analyzed autobiographical essays and found that Latina master’s and doctoral students experience similar challenges as Latina STEM undergraduates (Rendon, Nora, Bledsoe, & Kanagala, 2019). In addition to culture shock and feelings of tokenism—brought on by being the only Latina, or sometimes the only woman, in the classroom—Latinas experience academic-related challenges throughout their paths to the PhD. Academic challenges may include a lack of information about how to succeed in STEM, pursuing graduate study if English is a second language, difficulty with scholarly writing, and lack of information about presenting and publishing for academic audiences. To complicate all that, Latinas often face life-stage challenges as they move from undergraduate to doctoral programs. For example, life challenges can include the onset of health problems, caring for siblings or other family dependents, and financial challenges—recall that many federal grants are reserved for undergraduate programs and federal aid is limited for graduate study (Rendon et al., 2019).

Universities continue to struggle with how to restructure graduate programs so they offer equitable opportunities for racial minority students. For instance, graduate diversity officers have identified challenges in improving the admissions process, which is closely tied to faculty support and offering funding to doctoral students (Griffin, Muniz, & Espinosa, 2012; Pos- selt, 2016). After admission, racial minority students can often struggle in doctoral programs. One important study found that minority students were the targets of microaggressions and experienced “vicarious trauma” when they heard about racist statements that were directed at others (Slay, Reyes, & Posselt, 2019, p. 272). Microaggressions and vicarious traumas created challenges to minority students’ success in their graduate programs (Slay et al., 2019). In environments that lack diversity and that can be overtly hostile, doctoral students need academic support, psychosocial support, and sociocultural support from their advisors (Posselt, 2018).

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