Remembered Experiences, Feelings, and Stories Before Community College
Seeing oneself as a type of person who can do engineering is an identity that is shaped and reshaped through social participation and practice. However, it is not possible to view learning and participation divorced from students’ backgrounds and communities to which they belong. As you soon shall see, Kitatoi’s journey into engineering did not begin with playing with Legos at a young age, enrolling in summer STEM camps, or through advanced high school math/science preparatory courses—a common account among privileged students studying engineering (Cruz & Kellam, 2018; Verdin, Godwin, & Ross, 2018; Warne, Sonnert, & Sadler, 2019). Instead, her pathway into engineering was against environmental constraints and, in large part, was a result of her agency, i.e., the resistive acts and choices she made in response to and against external influences. The exercise of agency and the change that comes with this exercise is a reflective process. Before 1 begin to tell the story of how Kitatoi came to see herself as someone who can do engineering, I must do justice to her journey by uncovering the sociohistorical context she agentically and resiliently navigated through.
1 start by eliciting a reflective narrative.
Interviewer: Can you tell me how you came to where you are today? Kitatoi: I pretty much was aware that I didn’t have any education,
and I wasn’t going to be able to get a job ... or support myself.
I pretty much learned maybe ten years ago that when my kids got to the age that they were going to need help with school- work like math, science, English, anything, I wasn’t going to be able to help them because I had such a bad experience in high school. I just had very little education and just very little knowledge about everything around me. I decided ... I don’t want to be like that anymore. I want to know how things work.
I wanted to be able to know history, know how to write a decent essay. I wanted to be able to know basic math. . . . This was my goal, to be knowledgeable so I can help the kids with their homework.
Kitatoi’s reflection of her life’s course and decision to change the trajectory of her life was a powerful emancipatory act toward reclaiming her agency, toward reconstructing her environment, and her resilient desire to reshape how she saw herself (i.e., seeking identity-congruence). Kitatoi’s narrative is not a story of a high school dropout; in fact, she graduated from high school, barely meeting the graduation requirements and with minimal academic preparation. In her words, “I didn’t get anything out of high school, I just got the fuck out of there.” Kitatoi’s reflection reveals how disempowered she felt as an adult in society, how her agency had been hindered due to an education system that failed to prepare her, and how this, in turn, would affect her children.
Kitatoi’s story is not uncommon. Scholars have long documented how the public educational system has shortchanged Mexican American students (Ballon, 2015; Rumberger &: Rodriguez, 2010; Valencia, 1997, 2011). Kitatoi began high school in Southern California in 1997 against the backdrop of a master narrative of Mexican Americans’ educational attainment, achievement, educational value (Valencia, 1997, 2004), and state initiatives prohibiting bilingual education, which shaped the narrative of how linguistic minorities were viewed in society (Garcia, Wiese, & Cuellar, 2011). Kitatoi was never formally enrolled in a bilingual program that would support her language development.
In [elementary] 1 had a teacher in second grade who was bilingual and she helped me a lot. then I had her again in fourth grade у otra vez she help me a lot, then I went to fifth grade. ... I remember crying. ... I realized that the teacher not only didn’t speak Spanish . . . [he] . . . told me that I had to deal with not having her [bilingual teacher] around to keep helping me. Osea, que ya m modo, que me aguante. . . . [In] middle school ... I was just lost in understanding a lot of things, and teachers just sort of didn’t pay attention to me 'til I messed up on something, then they realize it was a language thing у nomas me dedan well, “you gotta try harder” or some shit like that. . . . Some me regafiaban that I was falling behind or I’m at a lower level than I should be at or tell me that I needed to do something about it ... a teacher told me that I needed to stop . . . playing around . . . with my friends so much and focus on the homework or readings. I never went out and had no friends in middle school. ... In high school I remember I would try to cheat my way to a good grade cause I didn’t know what else to do and one teacher caught me . . . she was disappointed but just said I needed to do better, and I remember being confused like, what do you mean better? How? But she didn’t tell me.
Kitatoi recounted the teachers’ relationship with her as inauthentic, lacking care and compassion for her educational struggle. Her teachers tended to be more concerned with content acquisition as opposed to Kitatoi’s subjective reality'. In many ways, teachers were interpreting her lack of content knowledge as a form of off-putting behavior, signifying that she didn’t care. Kitatoi’s lack of academic preparedness, in the eyes of her teachers, was her fault (i.e., victim blaming). With minimal support and care from her teachers throughout middle school and high school, Kitatoi resiliently attempted to act on her environment by cheating her way to a good grade. While her reconstructed environment sat in tension with the school’s moral code, Kitatoi was enacting her agency to resist the imposed school environment that left her to care for herself using a resource that made sense to her because “[she] didn’t know what else to do."
Valenzuela’s (1999) extensive ethnographic account observed how students at one predominately ethnic minority high school were subjected to linguistic and cultural divestment where the imposed environmental structures (i.e., policies and practices) subtracted students’ culture in favor of assimilation. The statewide discourse and public perception of bilingual education of students who are English-language learners were fiercely contested issues that subtracted students’ culture or educational attainment and impacted how Kitatoi saw herself and who she wanted to become.
The kids [in] . . . ESL [English Second Language] classes. . . everything was the lowest level . . . lowest level English, lowest level math, lowest level. ... It was just like, if you’re part of this group and you’re going to this class, you’re not going to get really far in life. You’re not going to go to college. ... I just didn’t want to be associated with them because of this stereotypical thing of, “All the Mexicans hang out in the back of the school . . . they’re not going to get very far. . . .” because that’s what the vibe was in high school.
The high school Kitatoi attended was guilty of reproducing inequalities among students by preparing certain types of students differently than others. Solorzano and Solorzano (1995), Valencia (2011), and Ballon (2008, 2015), among others, have argued that the students in these ESL classes had unequal schooling conditions (i.e., ability grouping, curriculum differentiation, and low expectations) that stunted their opportunities by offering a curriculum that only prepared them for low-paid and low-skilled jobs. And as Valencia (1997) would argue, the ESL students were receiving subtractive schooling by having resources removed (i.e., regular-tracked courses and college preparatory courses). Kitatois refusal to enroll in ESL classes was a resistive act, not on the part of being bilingual or Mexican American, but on the subject positioning and unequal opportunities being afforded to language-minority students in those classes. Her perception of Mexican Americans and people with English as a second language was constantly at odds with who she wanted to be, in large part due to an imposed reproduction of a deficit perspective that dominated the current discourse. The master narrative of how Mexican Americans were positioned in society was rooted in deficit and racist views intended to systematically disenfranchise a growing community' in the Southwest (Solorzano & Yosso, 2000). Kitatoi recounted how she saw society's positioning of people like her.
I never saw or knew any Mexicans with English as their second language more than like field or construction workers . . . house cleaners or housewives or working at restaurants and so I just figured that that | English as a second language] was the reason why.
Kitatoi, as an adolescent, was impressionable and vulnerable to the single narrative she saw in her surroundings, unaware that society had systemically disempowered and disenfranchised people like her (see Gonzalez, 2013; Tejeda, Martinez, & Leonardo, 2000; Valencia, 1997, 2004). Although Kitatoi enacted her agency by resisting the subject position placed on ESL and Mexican American students, she was navigating an educational environment that had low expectations and negative stereotypes of students like her. Her experience in high school was rooted in long-standing racist stereotypes about Mexican Americans as indifferent toward and devaluing education, denoting an imposed deficit narrative (Valencia, 1997; Valencia & Black, 2019). While Kitatoi agentically resisted the master narrative by constructing her own path, her action would have a long-lasting effect. Kitatoi, throughout high school, concealed the fact that she too struggled with the English language.
I felt really behind in high school. English is my second language. I didn’t really understand what 1 was reading. ... I didn’t really know how to read that well in English . . . how to write in English. I knew a little bit, but not where you’re supposed to be at a high school level. ... I flunked English, freshman English, and 1 flunked math.
I failed those classes, and I never told anybody because it was embarrassing. I wasn’t understanding the teachers, I wasn’t understanding the assignment. I wasn’t really understanding anything. I understood very little in order to pass high school, but I really don’t think I learned anything. ... I didn’t know how to write a basic essay or do basic arithmetic.
Kitatoi’s feeling of disempowerment, the feeling of being disregarded and overlooked by her teachers, fractured her agency and led her to withdraw from academics. Systemic inequalities and prejudicial views of Mexican American youth, as have been discussed by scholars (Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Valencia, 2011; Valencia & Black, 2019; Valenzuela, 1999), allowed Kitatoi to enter high school with low levels of preparation. While Kitatoi graduated from high school, she “understood very little in order to pass, but I don’t think I learned anything.” I would argue that the imposed academic self- concept of a struggling student became overpowering.
Despite Kitatoi’s depressed academic preparation, as a result of the education system that failed her, she enrolled in a local community college, ready to beat the stereotype that Mexican American youth were “not going to get very far." After graduating high school, Kitatoi was attempting to redefine herself as a capable student; however, it would seem that imposed environmental influences (i.e., shortchanged academic preparation, subtractive schooling, and societal pressures of where Mexican American women like her are positioned) would overcome her agency. Kitatoi was placed into a master narrative of the role women like her were expected to fulfill in society. After a semester, her academic trajectory took a turn, she became a full-time housewife at the age of 19:
I decided that I was just going to get married. Wasn’t going to do school, was just going to get married and have kids and that was going to be my life ... at that time I thought [getting married] was going to be the best thing for me.
Looking backward to remembered experiences, feelings, and stories were important in moving towards understanding the sociohistorical factors that shaped Kitatoi’s trajectory. Throughout her trajectory, her agency was both constrained and enabled—constrained as a result of the master narratives that imposed a certain way of being in the world and enabled when she actively resisted these narratives. Kitatoi’s reflection offers a view of how agency is both enacted and suppressed by environmental factors (i.e., environments that are imposed, selected, and constructed). The dance between constrained and enabled agency ultimately shaped how Kitatoi saw herself in relation to learning and being a student. Kitatoi’s identity, albeit imposed due to environmental factors, at this point in her life was that of a struggling student. In the next section, I discuss how Kitatoi’s reconstructed agency allowed her to re-enroll at community college, which paved a pathway toward studying engineering and ultimately reshaped her perception of herself as a capable learner.