How Latinas are Redefining the College Dream

Redefining the College Dream
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This article orignally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Latina magazine.

Many Latinas follow their own paths to academic success, which makes it all the sweeter.

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This May, Latina high school and college graduates sent the nation a strong message: while other seniors tweeted about being #donewithschool and getting ready to party or be a #bossbabe, our comunidad posted pictures of their caps painted with messages like Chingona como mi madre and Xicana from the ’hood. They told raw stories about overcoming poverty, discrimination, and documentation challenges on the road to commencement. It didn’t take long before the wave of stories started trending on Instagram and Twitter.

One class valedictorian, Larissa Martinez, from McKinney Boyd High School in McKinney, Texas, upped the ante a few weeks later. In a graduation speech recorded and posted on YouTube, she went public with the stunning admission that she was one of the “11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States”—one who also happens to be headed to Yale University. In late June, after the Supreme Court deadlocked on an appeal’s court ruling that blocked former President Obama’s executive order on DAPA and DACA, delaying deportation for many undocumented students, another wave of undocumented graduates came forward on social media with their inspirational stories of achievement. The momentum continued through the summer, reflecting and reinforcing Latinas’ deep commitment to education.

“Growing up, I didn’t see a visual representation of what being a Latinx college student was like,” says Nazly Sobhi Damasio, 28 (using the gender-neutral term for Latinas and Latinos). Damasio, who is Persian and venezolana, curates content on the social networking feeds for Latina Rebels, a Latina feminist site. They originated the hashtag #LatinxGradCaps, where many of the compelling campus stories appeared.

“As people started to send us images of their college experiences, including beautiful tributes to their families’ migrant experiences, the submissions grew and grew, and it felt so powerful to talk about Latinx folks doing beautifully badass things on their educational journey.”

Latinos have made huge educational strides in recent years. A study found that in 2012, 69 percent of us enroll in college right after high school, compared to 67 percent of white students. Our high school dropout rate is at all-time low— declining from 32 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2014—and a whopping 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in our community go to women. So why do Latina students feel so compelled to make a big escándalo about our success when we do graduate? Our four-year bachelor’s degree graduation rate, at 15 percent, is still the lowest of all ethnic groups in the United States, but many students, and experts, refuse to see this as a sign of failure. There are many reasons most Latinos don’t graduate in four years—among them economic hardship, family obligations, and an understandable reluctance to take on student debt. So a high percentage of Latino students take nontraditional routes to their degrees, such as studying part-time at community colleges and spreading their education over a longer periods.

“Less than 20 percent of students today fit the traditional pathway to college, where a student moves away, lives on campus, and gets their degree in four years. Yet this is the pathway we consider necessary for success,” says Deborah Santiago, COO of Excelencia in Education, a not-for-profit that studies and supports Latino scholastic success. “Our research found that many Latinos who haven’t graduated are still enrolled six years after they matriculated—a rate twice as high as other groups. Our students are committed, they’re just doing it in a way that reflects their values, their responsibilities, and their own individual timeline.”

As Latinos start to tell their own stories about educational achievement, it’s becoming clear we’re blazing our own trails to that achievement, and it’s increasingly looking like one that works specifically for us.

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