Felicia Arriaga

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Janell Smith interviews graduate student Felicia Arriaga in an effort to understand issues of diversity within higher education institutions, specifically as it relates to Latino faculty members. With the hope of becoming a professor, Arriaga is a graduate student in the sociology department at Duke University, where she began her undergraduate career as a student in 2008 and received her bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology in 2012. She is expected to graduate with her doctorate in 2018. She explains how her minority status has helped and hindered her collegiate career. Arriaga is a resident of Hendersonville, North Carolina, and is also heavily involved in and committed to her community. As the daughter of farmworkers, Arriaga works to better the lives of Latino students and laborers. She works for the Student Action with Farmworkers non-profit organization that seeks fair and just working conditions for farmworkers. Together Ms. Arriaga’s passion for education and her experiences as a Latina student provide a valuable perspective on diversity in higher education, especially as it relates to inclusion of Latinos.



Janell Smith: Okay, this is Janell Smith. I am a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel here (corrects self) — Hill. I am here with Felicia Arriaga and we are going to conduct an interview tonight. It is about 6:56 p.m. on April 9 of 2014. Today is a Wednesday and we are in the APPLES office located in the Student Union.
So thank you for agreeing to do this Felicia, I know this is last minute but I definitely think you can provide some good insight into some of the research, I guess you could it, that I am doing. I kind of just want to learn more about diversity in higher education as it relates to Latinos being integrated into university departments.
Felicia Arriaga: Great, great. I’m excited.
JS: How about we start with where you are now. You’re a graduate student at Duke, so do you want to talk about how you got to Duke, how you got to graduate school—
FA: Sure.
JS: How you got to your department?
FA: Yeah, I’ll try to give a condensed version, maybe. So… (laughs). I did my undergraduate studies at Duke University and I graduated in May 2012. Now I am a second year Ph.D. student in the sociology department. So, I guess I can talk a lot about the high school preparation that I had, just because that is fresh in my mind and fresh from some of the things that I work on. I think on the side as well about how important college preparation programs are, especially for minority students. I think I can talk a little bit about — I was part of a program called the Next Generation Venture Fund. That program provided, basically, my own guidance counselor that I could interact with and that I could go to if I ever had questions about course selection in high school, later on about SAT prep and then also, whenever I was a junior or senior, about really narrowing down colleges and universities that I would — that I was interested in applying to.
That program was great in general, but I think looking back on it now, too, it was a very specific program that I even had trouble, sort of, explaining to my guidance counselor — my guidance counselor at my local high school — to the point to where I literally was being told how to go about course selection and some of those things I mentioned before by the guidance counselor sort-of-person that was given to me by through the Next Generation Venture Fund.
JS: So this was completely outside of your high school?
FA: Yes. So, it’s completely outside of my high school so there was definitely differences in what my friends were getting as far as college preparation/support went and then definitely another kind of drop off of the people who weren’t even in the honors and AP classes. I can only imagine now what that looked like for them. So that’s also, I think, inspired me to really look at some of the deficiencies there, especially in guidance for high school students, particularly where I’m from in western North Carolina. That’s also allowed me, though, to really think about how can I make to there and make an impact knowing that I’ll be here because I do live in Durham and I do not get to go back that often and I also don’t want to be this shadow and not present there. I’ve toyed with the idea of what that looks like a lot, and so I’ve thought about starting a scholarship for my local high school, particularly geared towards encouraging Latino student college access.
What that means is that I would ideally like for a Latino high school student at my high school to sort of bring together other Latino students and really have a discussion about what are the best ways to get to college, what are some of the options for college, what are some of the challenges we’re going to face, how do we make it so that we have a voice and that whenever we go to certain people they’re not telling us off or maybe giving us all of the information because they might still hold that view that Latinos aren’t graduating, or aren’t going to high school or aren’t going to college and aren’t able to do some of that work, which I think I’ve been surprised by some of those stories that some of the high school students have told me about their interactions, not just with guidance counselors, but also with high school teachers in general and some other community members and very much trying to — we would like to try to combat that and make sure that those students feel that they have some where to go and someone to talk to about it. That’s kind of the work that I do back home is really trying to create…(Minor interruption in recording due to technical issue.)
JS: It’s there.
FA: Okay.
JS: Where students, sorry…
FA: Really trying to create an environment where students feel that they can talk to not just other students about it but also that they can talk to teachers, professors, really kind of creating that community there and that’s a work in progress, but I think that it is moving in the right direction. We have gotten a lot of support from teachers, from guidance counselors, from people who work in the community college system. I think it’s all of those things that need to be talked about all at the same time, and even if it, especially for parents and for people who this is their students are going to be — or their students are going to be the first generation — it can be a lot. But we hope, that in creating that space where you know who you can ask about certain things, that they will be more willing to ask some of these things and so that we can actually change or encourage those students to go to college if they want to.
I think that we always tend to think that education is the great equalizer and I think that in reality you have to think about…(pauses) education might be great for some people, but other people might also have a different idea about what they want to do with their lives, especially at a younger age and especially when they have gone through situations in their own lives where they’ve already had to become adults very early. I think that if they know that they want to go do certain things within the health services and they don’t necessarily need a college education to do that, I think that is something we should be guiding students to do — is how do I make that connection with someone, especially if their current life situation calls for them to maybe provide for a child or something. I think that this is — the college conversation is one that we are having, but we’re also having it with people who might not think that college is right for them and I think that that is also maybe a difficulty, particularly if we are trying to create a program that is a college preparation program. I don’t think that that is necessarily what we’re trying to create there. I think we are trying to create really the space where we can have conversations about college, just about post-high school. I think is what we’re generally interested in looking at and also really tailoring it towards the community because, I think if the community is needing certain things, it’s needing interpreters on one level, especially for communities in the Southeast that are newer Latino communities. They still are very much — they still need basic service interpreters or some of those things that I think that we should all be thinking about that. About how do we really encourage the people that are there to use the skills they to have to benefit the larger community as a whole as well.
JS: You’ve been talking a lot about home. What are the demographics like back…
FA: That’s a good question.
JS: You said somewhere in western Carolina.
FA: So I live — well my family lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina. It’s southeast of Asheville, North Carolina. I actually don’t – I looked this up recently — I don’t know all of the demographics, but we do have an increasing Latino population. Part of that is, or at least, I think most of probably the parents, of my friends and my parents as well, were farmworkers and were migrant workers. It’s also been that those families have stayed there and might have other jobs now, but their children, as I mentioned prior to this, but the people around my age and just a few years older, we kind of are those first people that have gone through the K-12 education system in our area. I think this issue of college access is really important to us because, for us we made it through college. Most of us, or the handful of us that were able to finish high school and went on to college, we’ve finished college at this point and so we’re really — I think — looking back and trying to figure out, well we were kind of those pioneers, I guess to use a cliché term: the people who were definitely the first in our classes and the first Latino students in the AP classes, the honors classes. But now we really want to think about, well it shouldn’t still be the case that there’s only one Latino or one Hispanic. This doesn’t, definitely just doesn’t apply to the Latino population. I think this is something that we should think about in general for all minority students, but particularly that I am interested in kind of, some of the work that I interested in is geared specifically towards Latinos. That’s where I’ve really thought about how to build up that capacity of the Latino college-going community and how that fits into this narrative. I think that being said though, that the demographics — the people I was usually around — actually differed because I went through a boys and girls club program. The demographics there when I was going there was one-thirds black, one-thirds white, and one-thirds Hispanic or Latino.
That was a little bit different in that demographic I was with there was very different than my high school classroom. I think having that experience and having those interactions with people who were very different from me has also made me think about it as that issue of how are minorities fairing in general versus having a different conversation around, “Oh well,” — and this is what we hear all the time, was this like — “Oh, if there’s a Latino student made it then every other student can make it,” or “If there’s an Asian student that made then what are the other minority groups doing wrong?” I think that that’s crucial to think about it in this holistic view of if everyone achieving at the same level. Should they be achieving at the same level, given the circumstances that they’re in and that resources that have been put into their education.
At least that is a little bit of the demographics, but in my high school there was (pauses to think)…In my AP and honors classes, whenever I was in high school, I was probably the only person of color or there was one other Latina who actually when to Chapel Hill or went to Chapel Hill for two years. She ended up transferring into Chapel Hill. Just thinking about those demographics, I now know a handful of people that were in my year and there’s very few of us. I think that the work that I have been able to do in Hendersonville now, and really trying to gather this people-who-have-gone-to-college population, it’s really made me realize, too, that I didn’t know other people in the other high schools in my county, especially who are Latino. I think that is also something that I’ve really thought about, too, is how do we foster not just within the high school that community, but how do we foster it across the whole county. I think that it does happen, but we still see that people don’t know, like people aren’t having — the students might hang out at a family function or somebody’s party or something, but they’re not having this conversation around do you want to go to college. That’s the conversation that I think is crucial to have and I think, too, that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that all of them want to go to UNC or Duke. I think that it’s also good for them to have the conversation of, “Some of us want to go to community college”. Some of it might be that, “I can’t afford to go to UNC or Duke,” or “I want to be close to my family.”
I think that those are conversations that it’s good to have them with people at different levels. That’s definitely something that we’ve been encouraging and we try to, when we’ve done panels for college access nights, that we kind of had that array of people who’ve gone to community college, what they’re doing now; people who have gone to four year colleges, what are they doing now, what were some of the pros and cons to thinking about that; and then we’ve had students who went to community college and are transferring now to a four-year institution. I think having those different levels and also having those different levels for the students to know about, but also for their parents to know about. I think, too, that that’s also key in even having that conversation with parents about the differences because, especially if we’re talking about Latino parents who might speak Spanish, that the names aren’t the same in Spanish as they are in English. Like “colegio” and “la universidad” are very different and, so, whenever we start a presentation there is a very break down of, “This is what a college is,” “This is what a community college is,” “This is what a university is,” and we’re trying to have that conversation, particularly for people who might not know the differences. That’s a common question that we get is, “What are the differences between these different things,” “What can I do with them?” That’s generally what some of the conversations we have around those things are.
JS: In your high school were there any Latino or Latina teachers?
FA: I was thinking about that the other day because I was trying to think about someone else to interview for my project, actually, and I was thinking about that. There was my Spanish teacher, who was from Colombia. She retired, but I think she was the only person of color that was a teacher in my school. In the middle school we did have, maybe two people or two teachers that were of color, but at the high school level I think it was just my Spanish teacher. I’ve thought a lot about that, especially with my project. My project that I am working on for the Global Guanajuato class is looking at exactly that: kind of the representation of Latinos within the K-12 education system, who are they, where are they coming from, how do they get to North Carolina, whether or not they are my age population — so, technically, yes some of my friends could be educators, but they’re not, why is that? In what I’ve found, at least in my stuff, is that the teachers around here, they’ve come here through a teacher exchange program from their country, which is a very different demographic than the people that we think of as immigrants in this state, I think. I’ve definitely been interested in thinking about that. I don’t think we have a teacher of color right now in my high school.
JS: Do you think that influenced your high school career in any way? Maybe you didn’t realize it then, but in retrospect…
FA: Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re asking and I think it did in they way that it — I think two things. One, I guess I didn’t know what teaching really entails and since I didn’t know that there was…(formulating idea). I don’t know I think, I don’t how to explain that. Maybe I’ll just go on to my other point because I don’t know how to explain that. But, I think that it did in the sense that — not saying that a white teacher or a black teacher can’t tell me about Latino culture, I don’t think that that’s what I’m saying, I’m thinking that there was no one there to have that conversation with. Now, I’m looking back on it because I do work a lot with high school students and college students. I think that is really important to have that sense of identity and to really think about how do I fit into this.
I think, too, that it shows that you’re not being taught to think critically in high school because I think if think about it, like what we’re being taught in history classes are some of those things about who won what wars and what actually happened. I think if you were taught to think about it in a critical way, you would have these questions about, “Well, wait a minute, none of these people look like me. How do they fit into this narrative that we’re being taught in schools? How does that fit into why don’t we have a heritage center for Latinos or for all the different groups that have come to this particular location?”
I think, too, that one is that the actual, that that identity and that willingness to actually bring up some of these issues has to start somewhere. I think this is what I was talking about a little bit yesterday in class, too, was this idea of transformative education versus the right to education. I think it goes back to that. Someone is holding — someone has written those texts books and has written them in a way that is going to showcase a certain type of history. One, it can be that we get new textbooks and we write history in a different way —that can either be done by people who are in charge of writing the textbooks — versus the flipside of the people who aren’t in those textbooks demanding or asking or creating a space where they can have that conversation. I think the latter is something that is getting a lot of push back, particularly if we look at K-12 systems across the country right now: that in particular school systems there is this move to really take out Latino ethnic studies.
When we think about that, I think that’s crucial in trying to develop your identity and trying to develop this sense of belonging, the sense of wanting to understand a particular ethnic or racial group better. I think that we don’t do a good job of doing that and I think it may or may not be across the board in the school systems in North Carolina. I think it also has a lot to do with who your teachers are, right? And if they’re going to let you do a project on this particular thing that they might not have any idea about, but if your interested in looking at Latino populations in North Carolina or if you’re interested in looking at the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina — some of those things that, there are going to be teachers and there are going to be people who are going to be better at guiding you through those things. I don’t necessarily think that that was something that I had. I think that I got it from other places. I think that I was challenged to think about those things in different settings and not typically in school.
But I think, now, looking back on it with the college perspective and thinking about, “No, we shouldn’t be having this conversation in a different way.” I think that it’s not just about particular ethnic or racial groups; I think that that’s just in general about how things work in society, that that conversation isn’t had. I think that also has to do with my desire to also include popular education techniques in education and really valuing some of those things over always what is in a book as fact.
JS: You mentioned that you got your sense of identity and different types of learning, I guess, from other places. What were these other places and did they encourage you to go to college?
FA: Yeah, sure. I guess the other big influence I had was the Boys and Girls club. Because I was in a situation where I was with a lot of people who were very different from me, at least racially, I think that that really opened my eyes to having to define myself against them. I think that that’s a lot of our identities are really social in nature, right? I think that that helped me to define myself, but it also, I think, it gave me things to really think about.
How did I navigate — it was sometimes difficult to navigate being the only minority in white classes with having friends who were not in honors and AP classes, but who were racially similar to me, racially and ethnically similar to me. I think a lot of those times it did make me question, like, there’s so much effort being put into what I’m doing and having the Next Generation Venture Fund — having that extra help, it also makes me realize now that, if it took an extra guidance counselor to get me to Duke then is that what is also necessary for every minority student in my high school or is there a different way to go about doing what is already being done in my high school.
I think that I was being encouraged by both the Boys and Girls club side and both from the Next Generation Venture Fund. Both of those programs were really instrumental in helping me see other people of color and really see how it was to be successful while knowing that I was almost in a contradictory position within my honors and AP classes because I was the only person of color. But I think that having that reinforcement in both of those places really helped me because I had a cohort of great friends at the Boys and Girls club and I had a cohort of great friends that I met through the Next Generation Venture Fund. One of them is my best friend who I went to undergrad — we both went to Duke — so, who I’ve known for ten years now. Being able to have conversations with her about and really being able to realize that I could go to them with questions about going to college and — my parents didn’t go to college and so I had a lot of questions about it. But I was very much expected to go to college at that point, both from my parents and both of those programs. I don’t think that there was ever a time that, at least I can remember, that I wasn’t going to go to college.
I talk a lot about this in my — I’m taking a sociology class on education and poverty and racial inequality and we talk a lot about this. About, “Yeah, I got into Duke. But most of us who have gotten into Duke, especially from my minorities and from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds, we’d already had kind of had something along the way. I was marked as gifted academically and in the AIG program when I was —
JS: AIG meaning?
FA: Academically and intellectually gifted. I think it’s changed but I think that’s what it was back then.
JS: Oh, back home it was called TAG, tag.
FA: Yeah, I think it’s similar. I guess marked for that in fourth or fifth grade, and so really knowing that, I think that it’s awesome now, especially the sociologist in me really looking at, “Wait a minute, what was, kind of, the intervention that kind of set me on this trajectory?” Going through that program, going through Duke TIP during summers, going through the Next Generation Venture Fund — having all of these things along the way, but then realizing, too, at some point, like I had these things, but I am, I think, rare for the minority students from my hometown. I think that that’s disheartening a lot of the times for me. I think it’s also my responsibility now to go back and think about, “How do we encourage students, but how do we also change that system that I went through?” I can encourage students all day, but if the support isn’t there to back them up, if they’re not getting that reinforcement people that they see on a regular basis, then there is going to be — (collecting thoughts) if that’s not reinforced, then why would they continue doing that?
I think a lot about that going forward, but I also think that I have a responsibility to tell them the pros and the cons, right? So the cons of going to Duke; being another minority in a very white space; going to graduate school and being even more of a minority; and being in a minority in a racial and ethnic sense, but also in the gender sense of the word as well. I think that is the responsibility that I have now: is to be transparent about all of those things. That’s why whenever I’m talking to students about what they want to do, I be sure to let them know that there’s going to be pros and cons about everything. If you go to community college, there’s going to be a pro to being able to see your family and being able to distress in that way and being able to really be with your family in the way, that if you’re going even four hours away, that’s far for me. Now, two of my sisters have children and I don’t get to see them as often.
JS: And your sisters are back in Hendersonville?
FA: Yes, both of my sisters are back in Hendersonville. And so, I think that we had that conversation when we were in Guanajuato. That question about, “What am I? What do I value and why have I been taught to value this thing?” When I say that education may or may not a great equalizer, however you want to take that, there are going to be costs to that, right. I think that that sometimes we don’t think about the mental cost that is going to have. Whenever — and this goes back to your question, I think your general thing that you might be looking at about diversity and how you being the sole person within a program, within a school — you being that minority person in particular there are going to be costs to that. I think that something that we’ve talking a lot about in my programs and in my department with younger students that I mentor at Duke we’re talking about this diversity question. Is numbers, is that what we’re striving to do, is just get an equal number of Asian students, of black students, of Latino students and white students? Is that what we’re really reaching for or is it, I think — one of my professor gave an acceptance speech for a diversity award that my department received about this issue of deeper diversity? Deeper diversity being, “Well, is there a space where I feel comfortable being on this college campus? Are there programs that I can feel that I can explore my identity? Is there a Latino center? Is there different courses that are being taught that can really help me explore some of the things that I want to research?” I think that that’s across the board and not just my particular university. I think that that’s across the board that we sometimes have issues really thinking about what does it mean to be a diverse school and is that the same as being an inclusive school.
I think usually it doesn’t mean that. I think usually when we think about diversity, we’re thinking about, “We’ll we let this number — x number of students — into the school this year. That’s look: we have diversity. Are all of our pictures on our websites, they’re diverse. That means we have diversity.” That’s not what diversity is for me. I think we also like to — I think diversity is also equivalent sometimes to, “Oh, but there is that one minority student who is doing everything, who is fine in their department and who is the all-star.” Then we like to sensationalize their story versus, “Well what about the group as the whole? What are their graduation rates looking like? Do they feel like they’re a part of this campus?” I think that those conversations are harder to have, but I think that they’re necessary to have in order to really be inclusive in a more genuine way. But I think that those also have to be like the ethnic studies courses and like the other courses at the high school level, that those are going to have to be demanded in a way that may or may n— that will probably upset the status quo, especially now that we’re in this age of colorblindness and all of these things. My advisor writes a lot of this on and it’s very fresh in my mind, about his work and about how do we combat these claims against affirmative action and how do we go beyond that conversation to make people understand that it’s not just numbers. It has to be more than that because if it was just numbers, everyone should be graduating at the same rate, right? That’s not the case, that’s not what we see.
JS: In class, I kind of had this — I don’t know. I couldn’t really choose between the transformative and the right because, to me, the transformative felt like I was validating, not myself, but other people. Explaining why my diversity in your institution is benefitting you, in addition to benefitting me, instead of being at the most basic level, we’re all human. Here are these basic rights that all of us have, you know? An education is one of them. It’s just like, do I get an education (Audio interrupted here) — am I afforded an equal opportunity to an education because that’s an innate right or because it’s benefitting you?
FA: I think, too, that you can even on the flipside think about, well it could be benefitting you as a minority to be in that space with that white person. But at the same time you have to think about it in the historical context you have to think about who has been doing the gatekeeping. It’s not like integration happened really quickly and I think that that’s something that we don’t remember when we’re having those conversation about, well, there was a process in order for this to happen; that remind us that we’re not so colorblind or we haven’t progressed. We talk a lot about this in just like the atmosphere of the campus or the statues on the campus and how those are reinforcing what was —
JS: Duke has statues, too?
FA: Oh, Duke has statues too. We talk about those often, but I mean some of things that people will say, “No, that’s part of our history.” It’s like, yes, it is part of your history, but do you want to continue to uphold a part of your history that excludes populations of your University. And I know that’s not the popular sentiment, but I think that those are real conversations and when you don’t have those conversations, you think it’s okay to do other things that might be racist or might be oppressive of other minority populations — and minority and all sense of the word there.
JS: It seems like, from what I can gauge, that your experience at Duke was similar to your experience at high school, where you were a minority. I guess my question is, what has really driven you to continue on with your education, even though you are a minority and sometimes you would rather be home and with your family and you know… What continues to — what is the fuel for the fire to continue to seek your education in the hopes of becoming a professor, right?
FA: Yes. I think that there’s two big things that stuck out in my mind. One, is that I do love doing the research and I do want to teach because I want to be in a position where I can challenge these assumptions that people have. Not just assumptions, but these truths that we have been continually told and I want to be able to challenge those things. I know that that’s possible to do at the high school level, but I also recognize that that the people we are in college with they are going to go and do who knows what. But they probably — I mean especially at Duke — the three job kind-of routes that you go, or the post-college routes that you go, are into business — some kind of business — into med school and into law school. And so those three right there, I would like that those people are actually thinking critically about some of the things that they’re doing and I think that sometimes they’re not. I mean I was on that college campus, I know what they’re thinking and what they’re saying. If they actually were challenged to think about those things, they might have a different opinion and they might actually use those opinions to enact actions that would benefit people who have historically been in lower positions.
I think that that for me drives why I am doing graduate school. I think the other piece of it is too, and I think that I go back and forth and struggle with this, is being a role model for other people who might want to do this and at the same time going through it so that I can tell them what the process was and having that option for them and not necessarily wanting to push them in that direction, but say, “Well, this was my experience. I can’t tell you what that person’s experience is but I can tell you what my experience is”. And if that can at least inform other people’s decision making, particularly when it comes to grad school because — I mean I’m a first-generation college student and so I am also a first-generation college student — and so, if that’s something that will be helpful for other students then I think that that’s why I also continue doing it. Especially because what I want to do is also — is really have that critical conversation about, “There’s going to be pros and cons, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and tell you that graduate school is awesome. But there are days when it is awesome. There are days when I feel like, yeah, I can actually research this and then I can think about how do I use this research to maybe funnel it into the policy part of things.”
And so I think that really knowing those things that I can help other people, and I do find that a lot, particularly Latino students do ask me how it is to be in the department, how it is to be in graduate school, how is to be at Duke in general, as an undergrad? And I think that I am honest with them and that’s all I can do. They can take that information and do with it what they will, but I can honestly say that I’ve tried, I’ve experienced it, this is what I’ve seen. I’ve also at Duke, at least — because I’ve been there for six years now — I’ve been able to see kind of, the transitions, particularly with the Latino student body. I think that’s also been good for me to look at because then I can see, well, it does change. So the environment at each school changes, usually every four years. I can use at least some of that knowledge to inform some of the younger students when they do come and ask me questions about, “What about this professor,” or “What about grad school,” or “How do I go about being mentored in a way that is going to help me get to that point?”
Those are big conversations to have. I kind of fell into that my first year of undergrad and —
JS: Did you have a mentor when you were an undergrad?
FA: Yeah. So, I guess I have different mentors in my life, but my academic mentor I met through my first sociology class. He was my professor in my first sociology class. Through that — and I think that was the first time I had ever been challenged on my viewpoints in such a bizarre way — and so that made me see that what I had been taught up to that point was through a very specific lense. I wanted to continue learning more and then I think through that I did kind of develop a sense of, “Yeah, this is something that I’ve experienced as a Latina within academia,” but also that I am not the only one — there are also other people of color, other women that are also experiencing this — and we don’t ever have that conversation; that we’re all taught that we are going to live the American dream after we graduate from high school. There’s not those, there’s not wage inequality; there’s not some of those things. And so I think that — I don’t know — those things would’ve been more interesting in high school to learn about than kind of the watered-down version of everything we got.
He was mentor for undergrad and now he is my academic advisor. So, I’ve stuck with him because I recognized that what he is discussing isn’t just a Latino issue, it’s not just an African American issue. It’s the whole way that kind of our system was created and how that continues to be reified in ways that are a little bit more abstract now, especially when we’re entering this kind of colorblind age. What was concrete in segregation — some of those things are very concrete — but now how do we explain, kind of, the differences in everything by race when those things are not legal anymore. I think that I’ve learned so much from his mentorship academically that have also impacted my social interactions and the way that I view my past experiences, but I think my other mentors are also people who I think reinforce what I’m learning. But, they were also there to support me no matter what I did early on.
The executive director of my Boys and Girls club is someone who I highly value his opinion because he knew what to say at all the times, whenever I was going through tough times, during second grade through twelfth grade because I had been there all throughout the time period. He knew what to say, he knew how to support me when there were family situations that weren’t going right. But he also did it in a respectful way, where he wasn’t that “Oh no, we need to take pity on you,” type of deal, because that’s not beneficial I think for both parties because it reinforces the other person’s thinking that I do need the pity. But I think it also reinforces that I’m in a situation where I can’t handle it myself. And so, I think he did it in a respectful way where he understood that this is something that I can grow from.
So I think that that’s kind of been my mentor ever since high school, my academic mentor and then I have a mentor who I look to in, kind of, that work-life balance type of deal and she’s my boss, I suppose, at Student Action with Farmworkers. And so, she is just a person who I admire because she is a person who I admire because she does so much social justice work with the organization, but she also has time to really reflect on those things and reflect on making sure that she’s happy. And I think that it’s really hard, especially whenever I’m reading and reading this kind of structural arguments about how our society has developed because it can be depressing to think about in that way because then there’s, if you’re taking that structural argument at its root, then individual change is hard to do. There’s days where I think some of the days that are bad days, particularly in academia for me, are those days where I’ve been just engrossed in this hole and all of this that it’s going on that I forget that there’s this other — there are people who are actively trying to change the system.
I think that that’s where my work with Student Action with Farmworkers reinforces that idea that while there can be systematic change, even it’s a structural issue, there can be ways to impact society at the systematic level. I think she does a great job of reinforcing that for all of us that work for her and making sure that she’s checking in with us at an individual level because she knows that we are people and she knows that we’re going to have issues, that we’re going to have bad days, that we’re going to have good days. I think that she’s done a great job of making sure that I recognize that. The whole, I think, SAF environment for me has been this place that I can de-stress about school, about family stuff, about larger systematic issues without having to house it in this academic-y speech all that time. That’s why I definitely value, I think, all three of their opinions and where they all give me different things I think.
JS: So it seems like support systems, community organizations, have been really fundamental in your academic success. Do you find that — it seems to me that you continue to forge these connections with — Do you find that these type of interactions are lacking in higher ed?
FA: Yes. Well, actually, can you clarify? Do you mean interactions like, individual interactions or like, interactions between community organizations and higher ed?
JS: Kind of both — continuing to foster interaction between this department and organizations in the community that are completely separate from the university. But also, individual (interactions) with this professor and that professor, you know?
FA: Yeah, so I think that I — I guess I can talk about the community organization one first and how that relates. I love the service-learning model. I have — this is my fourth or fifth service-learning class — and I love that model because I need to be able to see how the theory works. I think that that makes the learning more personable and I think that once you can see that face, the face of it, you can also see the humanity of it. I think that’s really important, especially when we do consider that college students are going to be making some decisions, making some higher-level decisions if they’ve never had that experience of being challenged in their thinking through a service-learning course. Then I think that that’s setting them up to think a certain way and to make certain policy decisions that, particularly if they’re policy majors, make certain policy decisions that they’re going to be up here, they might be great, but on the actual ground and in the implementation stage of things they might not be — (interrupted by co-worker, can heard saying “Hey” in the background)
They might not be the best for the people that are actually receiving that particular service. So I think that, yeah, we all have an ideal of how something might work, but it’s great to actually see on the ground how do I fit in here, one, because you are, somehow, going to be contributing to that particular service site and, two, how do I use this to form what I think later on and the decisions I make later on. So I love the service-learning model, and I think it challenges you in a way that you wouldn’t get, particularly if you’re just in a classroom, and reading a book, and doing some of those things. That being said, I think you do have to do a lot of the reading and I think you do have to do a lot of that prep work in order to see the things that you’re going to be looking at and some of those things. I think that it’s also great because I think, particularly with some of the service-learning programs, there is this — it’s a mutually beneficial learning if it’s implemented correctly, I think. And then, I think that that’s also what should be thought about, particularly if you think about universities and colleges throughout this country that may be having negative impacts on the community. So, to take Duke for an example, the land it’s on. If we think about who had to move from certain places and, even though, thinking about it as development — and it’s always a positive — we always have to think about the negative of, well what about gentrification? Or what about the people who are moved so that you can have this space? I think that those are things that, especially if you’re doing a service-learning course, you have deal with and you have to think about it in that way. Whereas if you’re not doing a service-learning course or if you’ve never even stepped off campus, because at Duke it’s really easy to stay on campus and go out only on weekends and go to some of those things and you never have to encounter some of those real life issues and I think that that’s one way service-learning courses have been able to bridge that community and academic realm — realms.
I think on the individual level, at least with Student Action with Farmworkers, we do a lot of presenting to classrooms and trying to educate the public about farmworker issues, but also access to education issues and some of those things. I think that that’s also kind of key and not even it having to be a service-learning class, but really thinking about how do those organization out there, how do we bring them in and really engage them in a way that’s going to be beneficial for the students, for the organization. Whether it’s some think tank coming in and having a presentation to students who are interested in policy, to potentially recruit, like some of those things I think there can be better ways in doing that.
I can only speak from one particular kind of niche within my own school because, like I already told you, most people are doing those three kind of tracks. And so for us though, for us who were thinking of an alternative pathway there was very little ways for us to access some of those things, but because we have done service-learning courses they sent us, kind of, information about this community organization or this policy thing. I think for us it was kind of crucial that we had already made these connections with policy organizations or with non-profits so that we could have some opportunities after we graduated.
I think that there is a lot of work that needs to be done there, but I think that it also falls on the University to make that an important issue. I don’t know if they will because I think that there’s still something about the prestige of Duke and having to deal with that and having to deal with, “We produce this, this, this in person,” and how that relates to then what they’re being routed into. I think it definitely relates to that. I don’t know if that will happen, but I think it’s also up to us to think about it that way because I think that there are programs where they push Duke Engage or just a summer immersion program. But I think, too, that there has to be follow-up with that, right? That may be a very temporary thing and so I think that there’s need to be this continuation of, “Well, what can you do with that? What can you — you don’t have to be a lawyer. You don’t have to go to iBanking. You don’t have to do some of these things to make a difference,” and I think that we are kind of sold that, like we’re sold the American Dream, we’re sold that in order to make a difference you have to do x, y and z and some of those things and this is the way to do it.
I think that’s not always true. I think it also matters what kind of difference you’re trying to make and if you’re trying to make a difference in your own community you don’t necessarily need all the credentials and who are you trying to be validated by. Those are some of the tougher questions that we sometimes don’t have especially when we’re thinking about post-college opportunities.
JS: I think it’s interesting that earlier we were talking about is diversification like numbers and just from this interview, it seems like yes, to some degree that’s important. But, really the diversity of perspectives and thoughts and ways to implement education and things like that. This was a great interview because it really like — you know, maybe at first I was thinking strictly in numbers, but —
FA: Yeah, I mean I think that that’s what the conversation is usually around and I think that, at least the way that I’ve heard it talked about is in phases, right? “Yea, well go with numbers first and then, we’ll have to have a number base to demand some of these inclusive programs and then who knows what that last one looks like, that last phase, because no one’s reached it yet.” So we can’t even talk about the ideal phase. But I think, too, that I don’t know, I go back and forth about why can’t you demand both of those things at the same time and I think it stems back to, well who’s going to be demanding the curriculum and the perspectives and some of those things. Does it have to be the minorities demanding that? Can it not be that, heaven forbid the people who have owned that institution for the longest time, can it not be that they themselves were doing their own research and actually being that person who is saying, “Oh no, we need this and we need this and don’t need it just for the minority students. We need everyone to actually take this course or take this class so that they can be these critical thinkers about the environment that they’re interacting in.” I don’t know. I think that that’s asking a lot to do both of those things at one point in time. I guess the way that it is, is that we do think about numbers, then we try to create this critical mass of people who want more. I think it’s — I don’t know, but I think that what I’ve also heard from administrators is that — that critical mass leaves every four years. That’s really hard when you’re replacing the critical mass, how does that continue? And so the other side is that, “Oh, you get Alumni involved.” It’s just like, well if the alumni are the alumni who were brought here with this particular mind set then no they’re acutally not going to demand these things too.
JS: Is it that, I’m wondering do you get the alumni involved or do you recruit…
FA: I think the recruiting thing wouldn’t work.
JS: Not necessarily recruiting but I don’t know.
FA: Yeah, it’s tough. No, I think about this. But I think that — or at least with the project that I’m working on where we are trying to have this discussion at four-year institutions and two-year instititutions around what are they doing for their Latino students, that we thought about it more as like a we attack at all different levels. So we talk about the institutional, we talk about what are the resources available at the institution now, but then we also think about how do we create this critical mass of people at the same time and critical mass of people who are thinking about this and thinking more just beyond I’m going to graduate, I’m going to make this a different place. That’s the conversation that needs to be had is, “Well, why do I feel alienated when this party is thrown or when this racist party is thrown?” Probably because at some point in time that there was no guidance for that particular group around this. And I mean it is still somewhat falls into that particular groups decision to have a party, but it’s also about “Well we don’t even have the administrative support of people who have even thought about, ‘Oh this might not be a good idea.’”
So we’ve thought about it as more as like, how do we do both of them at the same time because I think those are the conversations that you have, especially when you do consider that that students leave and if you can’t make sure that something stays in place then, yeah, you have to do it all over again every four year. When the administration can tell you to your face that these students are replaced every four years and that that’s why nothing will continue then you know that there’s an issue there. And then there’s that at the institutional level that you’re not going to get any buy-in but you still have to work at what you have and you have to figure out ways to go about doing that. I think it’s different at each university and I think that that’s definitely what we’ve found because we’ve only done these large administrative faculty and have students come and share their viewpoints. But at a two-year institution is going to differ from a four-year, UNC is going to differ from Duke, Duke is going to differ from Meredith and so I think there is different dynamics that play in each one.
That’s difficult, right, to be like, “No, I want one solution.” Well, that’s not how it works. That’ s not how the student body operates right now. That’s not how the administrators operate right now. It’s a really complex issue, but at the same time I think that there are ways to go about moving it. I think sometimes that involves saying very unpopular things. I think that’s kind of the situation we’re in right now at my department around our diversity issues.
That’s why I think it’s really relavent, particularly, right now. Not just at the graduate level, but also a situation where having — one of the Latino student organization on our campus was just approached about having a diverse representation of the Latino students for public, for media materials for the University. The response back — we responded back and his response back was very diplomatic in that it was, “Oh, no that’s not — I wrote it hastily. That’s not what I meant,” type of deal. Sure, we might could give you the benefit of the doubt on the hastily stuff, but at the same time we have to think about you portraying a diverse — racially diverse — university to students who are coming here versus what they actually experience, that is misleading.
We always get, particularly from (gathering thoughts) — I came into the States and I told you my experience about high school and I, I was like, “Oh, this is high school. I mean this is exactly what I experienced in high school,” so I was prepared for that — whereas a lot of our students are coming from, particularly our Latino students, might come from California, where they’re in predominantly Latino spaces. They come to Duke and they’re like, “This is not what I was sold on. This is not what I wanted. This is not what I’ve experienced.” It doesn’t have to be that one person come up to you and calling you a racist comments — that’s not what we’re talking about whenever we’re talking about the ins and outs of diversity and what that feels like. We’re talking about, “How do I feel on this campus? Do I feel like I can express myself and I can be my full self and not have to hide and not have to object when something feel racist because you’re going to be labeled as, ‘Oh no, you’re too sensitive.’”
Those are some of the things we have to think about and it’s really complex. I think that there isn’t always administrative support and so you have find that somewhere else. And, if you don’t, I am all for transferring. If there isn’t an avenue in order to make yourself feel comfortable then I think that you shouldn’t be at that space. I think that that conversation is had early enough. If I do talk to high school students, I tell them, “Well if you’re a minority, you might feel out of place. I’m going to be perfectly honest with you.”
I think there are things that I had to struggle with both at the undergrad and now at the graduate level, but at the same time, there are communities. I think that the people that I’ve found helped me a lot. So finding my mentor early on, knowing my best friend was there, knowing that there was a supportive community of people that were critical about the University — and I think that people really jumped to that conclusion that, “Oh, you can’t be critical of the school that you went to.” It’s just like no. You can — should be critical of the school that you go to be in the end it should help them figure out how to do something better. If that’s not what we’re there for, then we are still really much in that K-12 model of, “I’m a professor. I’m going to tell you what do,” or “I’m a teacher and this is how things are done.”
I think we can’t go about life that way. I mean you can, you can be perfectly happy and do that, but that’s not how, at least, how I want to live my life and that’s not how I want my students as a professor to go around in society. When we talk about diversity, we should talk so much more about more than numbers and it shouldn’t just be based on the numbers because then we’re talking about diversity in one particular way and it’s usually about race. I also don’t think that that’s what diversity is either. I think diversity has a lot of different levels or different ways we should talk about it and it shouldn’t just be based on numbers.
JS: I think that brings it full circle. Thank you so so so much. This was a very insightful, meaningful conversation about diversity. I’m so excited. Thank you, Felicia.
FA: You’re welcome.