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The Power of Familia

by Heidi Butler
April 30, 2014

As one of few Latino undergraduates at Dartmouth College, Gloria López did not feel at home. She remembers thinking two things when she graduated: Gloria Lopez1) If I got through this, I can get through anything, and 2) I never want to set foot on a college campus again.

Yet "here I am," said the dean of students with a smile as she spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of faculty, staff and students during a Faculty Colloquium at Northampton Community College on April 29.

"My background led me back," she asserted.

Long after she graduated from Dartmouth, López found herself working with college administrators as she sought to open doors for high school students as part of her job as director of the Posse Foundation. "I looked around, and often I was the only Latina or person of color in the room, and I thought, 'in twenty years, higher education still hasn't figured out how to include people like me."

That bothered her. So did the discovery that out of 2800 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, only 21 were led by presidents who were Latino, despite the fact that Latinos constituted 16% of the population, and that Latinos were projected to be the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population in the next twenty years.

As a doctoral student she was considering a different topic for her dissertation "That is a subject for another Faculty Colloquium," she joked, but she found herself thinking more and more about the fact that "despite an increasingly diverse college student population in the United States, there is still a lack of diversity among college presidents."

"Being an Aries and being a López, I thought 'I am going to solve that.'"

As the framework for her research on "factors that facilitate Latino leadership in higher education," Lopez used the concept of "Community Cultural Wealth" developed by Tara Yosso to focus on strengths rather than deficits that come from different cultural backgrounds.

Fourteen of the 21 Latino college presidents agreed to be interviewed for López's study. Her findings drew heavily on their words and their stories.

All of the presidents have been strongly influenced by their families (including extended families), whether or not family members have gone to college, and cultural values are very evident in their approach to their work, López said.

Although higher education was not familiar territory for some, they have been able to figure out the "unspoken rules," she pointed out. One president said, "Growing up in the barrio, you knew who the influencers are." Such knowledge is useful in navigating in the career world.

The commitment to making a difference is a trait many Latino college presidents share, López found. That aspiration helps them overcome obstacles, she says, quoting a president who was described in a newspaper editorial as having been hired solely because he was Latino. "I couldn't respond to that," he said. "The only thing that I could do was do my work. Ten years later I'm still doing my work. You just prove people wrong."

Many presidents spoke to López about how important mentors had been in their careers. Family sometimes played a role in that even if they had not gone to college. "My parents taught me to be open to receiving advice," one president noted.

One "emerging form of capital" that López hadn't expected to find was "spirituality." Although not all of the Latino college presidents identified with a specific religion or faith tradition, integrity, treating others with respect, compassion and a sense of purpose higher than self came through strongly in her interviews.

Using the image of a tree, López described Latino presidents' families as the "roots of their strength," and spiritual capital as the "trunk" that springs from it and supports all the branches.

She urged students to think about the strengths their cultural backgrounds have given them and encouraged faculty and staff to "get students to translate their backgrounds into strengths."

As the youngest of eight children of parents who hadn't graduated from middle school, and as the first member of her family to go to college, López said when she went to Dartmouth, she was ashamed of her background. "Now I am proud they are my family. They are my strength. They are the reason I am here, the reason I speak up.

"I no longer feel I have to check my culture at the door," she told the students. "Bring all of yourself, wherever you go."

 

 


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