The numbers are staggering; out of 100, only 8 Latinos graduate with a BA leading. Only .2% graduate with a doctoral degree. These numbers lead Sofia Bautista Pertuz, the assistant dean and director of the office of multicultural affairs at Fordham University NY, to examine ways to help Latinas persist and finish their PhDs.
Her panel, “Latinas Innovate Through Virtual Support: Forming an Online Network to Support Latinas Pursuing Doctorates” that took place at the NASPA 2014 Conference in Baltimore MD invited fellow Latina doctoral students Sherlene Ayala, the assistant director for leadership and diversity at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Catherine Olivarez, a doctoral student at the University of North Texas, to share their experiences within their programs and the use of social media in order to find support for their work.
According to the literature introduced by Ayala, Latinas enrolled in doctoral programs face unique issues: additional, external responsibilities; lack of institutional or program fit; institutional racism; lack of mentors; and limited social networks on the grounds. These challenges lead to a high level of stress for the students.
Raising awareness, creating support
Pertuz wanted to bring awareness to the issues faced by Latinas enrolled in doctoral programs, particularly because they may not be receiving appropriate support from their families.
She began blogging because she was trying to finish her third dissertation proposal and “an advisor can only support so much.” Pertuz then Googled “Latinas doctors,” but instead of finding potential role models and mentors, she found pornography. That was the last straw.
Ayala suggested that Pertuz create a Facebook group to bring together other Latina doctoral students. Pertuz chose to make the group “closed” in order to create a confidential space. This group, which came out of a sense of frustration as well as a sense of what she needed in order to succeed, has 440 members and counting. (After the conference presentation, the number went up to over 700.)
When new members would introduce themselves to the group they often expressed a feeling of isolation—that they were “the only one” like them in their program and perhaps their entire institution.
The Facebook group helped the Latina doctoral students feel less alone while it provided valuable support and advice about research methods, theoretical frameworks, data collection and handling communications with committee members. But it was also a space to celebrate milestones, share relevant articles, and cheer each other on when things got difficult.
“Latinas encounter double minority status in higher education,” explained Pertuz. “That is exacerbated by the acute underrepresentation of Latinas in the professoriate.” Her group shows how that lack can be partially compensated by using social media.
Graduate students speak
During the question and answer portion of their panel, led by Dr. Cyndia Morales, assistant director of multicultural academic and support services at the University of Central Florida, panelists addressed their specific experiences and challenges of being a Latina doctoral student.
The first question involved a discussion around what was most challenging for them in their pursuit of a doctoral degree. Ayala spoke about the tension between her research interests (race in student affairs) and the attitude of those in positions of power communicating that her research “won’t get her a job.” This leads to acute feelings of impostor syndrome, because she isn’t sure if her research will ever be published or accepted by mainstream academia.
Olivarez also pointed to having to work full-time to make ends meet, finding motivation at the ABD stage and having her approach or research interests dismissed by classmates or faculty.
In regards to keeping motivated, Ayala spoke about seeing her first Latina professor in the classroom. It excited her, and she “felt like there was a sister in the room.” What keeps her going is that she wants to give that experience to other Latinas.
Being a first-generation student and coming from a low-income household, being able to work with Master’s level students allows for her to make a difference in the classroom.
As for Pertuz, she pays her own tuition and thus is motivated not to waste her own hard-earned money. But she also wants to give back to her husband and ten-year-old daughter, as “the dissertation takes up so much!” Finally, Pertuz wants to help others succeed.
Another source of motivation is attending conferences where there are other Latina scholars. This way, you can see other Latinas making it through their programs and find valuable support and intellectual community.
What do doctoral Latinas need?
First and foremost, Latinas need validation of their research topics and ideas. Latinas spend a lot of time on foundational research, because there is a lack of literature on topics that represent “our stories.” There needs to be greater visibility for the theories that better connect to the types of research topics they want to study.
There is also a fear of being pigeonholed for talking about Latina issues. But if Latinas don’t write about them, who will? “The academy was not created for us,” emphasized Pertuz. “It was established for a privileged few. Things change, but it’s up to us to provide that perspective.”
Latinas also need flexibility in regards to their work. Many lack family financial support, and thus have to work at least part-time—if not full-time—and this impacts time-to-completion. That delay can be seen negatively by traditional academic programs. The dedication of Latina students may be called into question, impacting their persistence.
Perhaps most importantly, Latinas need a supportive environment, one that encourages their scholarship and is understanding of their unique challenges and situations. Programs need to more actively encourage creating a supportive network among student cohorts, which is especially significant if you don’t have a mentor who is invested in your success and your work.
Finding a mentor, being a mentor
Mentoring and mentorship were widely discussed during the Q&A period. The panelists reminded those in attendance that a lot of people on both sides are coming from a space of fear; there needs to be patience and understanding.
They also talked about how important it is to look for mentors from outside your box and community. This is important advice for all doctoral students looking to be successful.
Finally, the search for an effective mentor needs to start before you even begin your doctoral program. While you are researching schools, look at the faculty and see if anyone has the same interests and speaks the same language as you, both literally and figuratively. You need to make sure that there is a faculty member who is going to support you and coach you through your doctoral work.
Skallerup Bessette, Lee. (2014, August). Latina PhDs Find Support Online. Women in Higher Education, 23(8), 16-17.