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Education major works to build ‘critical mass’ of Latinx students on campus

three women at a table with learning materials

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​During National Hispanic Heritage Month, students Amanda Reed (left) and Lucia Pastor (right) work alongside Prof. Meghan Dabkowski to launch LASER, an organization whose mission is to create a critical mass of Hispanic/Latinx students on UD’s campus.​

As a high school student in Spokane, Washington, Amanda Reed viewed standardized tests the way a lot of high school students view them — as a drag. A bummer. A tedious, if necessary, step toward graduation.

“They were annoying,” she said. “But I never worried about passing.”

Then came a dose of perspective. While serving as a teacher’s assistant in her school’s English-as-a-second language (ESL) classroom, Reed confronted another reality. For students in this space, many of them immigrants not yet fluent in English, such tests represented more than just an inconvenient task to check off before soccer practice — they represented one of several uber-stressful potential barriers to commencement and, possibly, a university education.

“This was really eye opening,” said Reed, now an Honors student at the University of Delaware. “As a white person from a middle-class background, I had never been exposed to some of these issues in the educational system. To see how much these students wanted to learn, and to know it still might not be enough? That made me really sad.”

The experience crystallized Reed’s decision to pursue studies at UD in Spanish, education, and race, culture and equity in education. Eventually, she said, she would like to become a teacher, advocating fairness from within the classroom trenches. But she is not waiting on a career to take up the social justice torch.

As an undergraduate researcher with the Community Engagement Initiative’s Summer Scholars program, Reed spent the summer of 2021 building the LASER (Latinx Space for Enrichment and Research) at Delaware initiative. Modeled off a program at The Ohio State University that won a Bright Spots in Hispanic Education award from the Obama Administration, LASER will send student mentors from UD into area high schools. Their goal: providing the guidance and resources that will help young members of the Hispanic/Latinx community pursue a college career. The program will launch during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which kicked off Sept. 15.

The effort works locally to address a nationwide problem: Historically, Hispanic/Latinx people have been excluded from postsecondary education at disproportionately high rates. Issues of classism and systemic racism are in effect, and these issues are compounded for first-generation students. As Reed witnessed, members of this community and their caretakers may face a language barrier — or they may be unfamiliar with the American system of higher education — and this makes navigating the bureaucratic process of applying to college and finding adequate funding all the more difficult.

Once Hispanic/Latinx students are enrolled in a university, the struggle is not over. A 2014 study conducted by Rosalie Rolón-Dow, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, found that the experiences of individuals from this demographic on UD’s campus mirror the experiences of individuals from this demographic on college campuses across the country — they face microaggressions, a sense of disconnection and a limited sense of community, among other challenges.

“So LASER is about increasing the number of Hispanic and Latinx students on campus until we build a critical mass,” said Meghan Dabkowski, an assistant professor of Spanish, Portuguese and linguistics at UD and Reed’s adviser on the project. “The goal is to make everyone feel like an integral part of the community, rather than siloed off or invisible.”

Reed and Dabkowski, who do not have Hispanic/Latinx heritage themselves, said they hope that, one day, LASER will be run primarily by members of this demographic. In the meantime, they recognize the importance of listening to and learning from this community. Throughout the summer, Reed sought the perspectives of students enrolled in various Hispanic/Latinx organizations on campus.

This work helped flesh out the program framework and content: Student hub coordinators (eventually a paid position) will supervise volunteer student mentors, who will go into Newark High School, Alexis I. duPont High School and Las Américas ASPIRA Academy on a weekly basis. For ninth through 12th graders, they will provide information on everything from developing study skills to writing the personal statement required by a college application. Additionally, planned community days on UD’s campus will allow aspiring scholars a glimpse at university life, while faculty and staff speakers from UD and other institutes of higher education in the region will hold workshops for parents in both English and Spanish on funding that university life.

Put simply, it is “all about making college a tangible experience,” Reed said.

For one Latina student currently enrolled at UD, LASER represents the helping hand she could have used as a teen. Lucia Pastor, a junior nursing major, is first-generation — her parents came to the U.S. from Ecuador. Because they speak limited English and never attended a university themselves, she said, they were not able to assist with her college search. Instead, Pastor worked through various deadlines with support from a classmate who was — having immigrated from India — in the same boat.

“I had to do a lot of my own research, and the financial component was very confusing for me,” said Pastor, who, along with Reed, is serving as co-president of LASER. “I love that this program will help people feel less alone in this process. I hope we can reach a wide audience, and that we can let them know: Higher education is possible, and there are resources to help you achieve it.”

One group LASER specifically hopes to reach is the undocumented community. People in this demographic experience perilous barriers to higher education, from financial (40% live below the poverty line and federal aid is not available) to psychological (fear of deportation leads to compromised mental health). Because these students are often flagged by a college admissions office as international, they are required to provide additional materials, like proof of language proficiency, even if they have lived in the country since infancy. LASER representatives hope to liaise with these offices on behalf of individual applicants, to help mitigate institutional challenges.

“It can be a really hard road, and there are no great solutions,” Dabkowski said. “But we are trying to figure out ways to help alleviate this — to help make education more accessible — so that we sort of force the system into solving this problem.”

Many who hear about the work of LASER may mistakenly label these efforts as purely philanthropic, but organizers have a different perspective — this is not merely about helping those in need. This is about helping everyone.

“It’s not just charity work,” Reed said. “As the U.S. becomes more diverse, our college campuses need to reflect this diversity, because if we don’t, we’re missing out on the contributions of millions of people — contributions that will make our communities, and our country, stronger.”

One potential benefit of LASER for all populations at UD is greater opportunity for cultural humility.

“This means not just learning about another culture, but using that to reflect, do some personal critique and acknowledge biases,” Dabkowski said. “It’s about understanding that your culture is not the default.”

As LASER leaders work toward this vision, they are feeling gratitude for numerous units at UD that have provided assistance, including the Honors College, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and, particularly, the Community Engagement Initiative, which seeks to help faculty and students on campus apply their research for the betterment of society. While LASER is now a registered student organization, the program will be looking for a permanent home, potentially within one of these units, in the near future.

In the meantime, those wanting more information about the LASER cause can visit the program website.

“We are still actively recruiting student mentors,” Reed said. “Anyone from any background is welcome. If you are passionate about seeing a more diverse community on campus, we want to work with you.”​

Article by Diane Stopyra,  photo by Kathy F. Atkinson 

Published Sept. 29, 2021​

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