Sembrando STEM Semillas: The Transformative Impact of Latinx Faculty-Student Relationships at Community Colleges

Technology April 2024 PREMIUM

Latinx students at community colleges benefit greatly from the presence of Latinx STEM faculty who understand their experiences, providing mentorship and creating empowering environments. These interactions foster a sense of belonging, break stereotypes, and pave the way for success in STEM fields, highlighting the crucial role of community colleges in Latinx STEM education.

Community colleges have historically provided access to postsecondary education for many Latinx students nationally. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, Latinx students represent approximately 28% of all community college students nationwide. What is even more eye-opening is that almost half of all Latinx students began their academic journey at a community college. In STEM fields, where Latinx individuals are traditionally underrepresented, the mentorship and support provided by Latinx faculty become critical for student engagement, a sense of belonging, and academic outcomes.

A few years ago, I was asked to join a National Science Foundation Scholarship in STEM (S-STEM) grant as an educational researcher. It was based in a community college that was also a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) with about 80% Latinx enrollment. I interviewed both STEM faculty and STEM students to find out what helps them succeed. Two of the nine faculty interviewed identified as Latinx, and about 90% of the students interviewed were Latinx. In reviewing the transcripts, the interviews began to speak to each other.

Latinx STEM Faculty

The Latinx faculty discussed ways they relate to their students’ experiences, having attended community college themselves, being Latinx, and having working class parents. One faculty member stated:

I understand a lot of the familial and cultural boundaries that our students deal with. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with my students where they tell me, “My parents just don't get why I'm spending like 12 to 15 hours a week on this class.” And I tell them, “I get that because my parents were the same way, too.”

This same faculty member goes on to share how their financial hardship as a student helps them connect to their current students:

I take a lot of pride in, you know, having working class parents and making it as far as I did. I think that helps me connect with the students because I get exactly what theyre going through. What its like to be a broke college student. What its like to ride the bus for two hours to get to school.

Finally, they assert that sharing the same identity and trajectory empowers faculty members to serve as role models and to help students navigate challenges. To me that ability motivates me even more to want to provide them with the tools to be successful. Because I just remember when I was at that particular juncture in time, I was lucky enough to have that mentor that reached out to me and provided me those tools to be successful. So yeah, I feel like I really get them because I was them. 

Latinx STEM Students

As part of the recruitment process for the research study, we did not purposefully seek out to interview the students of the faculty that were initially interviewed. Yet, the Latinx students who participated in the study talked about the Latinx faculty by name. This inadvertent triangulation underscores the impact of the relationship between Latinx STEM faculty and students. One student shared, “the first time I ever felt like my perspective was valued was when I took my first [STEM] course during summer. The professor was very welcoming to every one of us.” The welcoming classroom environment that the faculty intentionally curated (as we saw above) created a transformational space. For this student, it meant feeling validated and heard for the first time.

Another student describes the relationship they developed with the Latinx STEM faculty member who was also part of the study. The student expresses gratitude toward this faculty member who helped them create a sense of identity that merged their Mexican, gender, and STEM identity.

I also found that your values and upbringing gets you through the hard times. I come from great Mexican women; my mom and aunts are all my role models. How hard they work is motivating to me. I believe Ive grown a lot here at [community college], too, because of the type of professors who have been really influential in my life. I feel proud of my intersecting identity. I identify myself as a [scientist] and as a Mexican, una Mexicana. So, I believe it just makes me stronger, knowing about my cultural background, my heritage, where I come from, and loving STEM.

Latinx STEM Researcher

Reading all of the participant interviews, particularly those from Latinx faculty/students, I can’t help but feel a little jealous. As a former STEM major myself (computer engineering) at a large, public research university, I think about how my experience could have been different at a community college. Hearing the stories of validation and empowerment has me questioning my own trajectory. How could I have been a better student? How could I have been more motivated? How could I have made more time to study? How could I have persisted in STEM? Even now, almost 30 years later, this is still my internal narrative… “What could I have done?” The truth is, not much. I was supporting myself financially. I was 2,500 miles away from home. I didn’t know what I didnt know about college as a first-generation college student. I felt discrimination and racism.

But now, I know better. As a higher education faculty member, I ask, what could the institution have done better? How could the STEM field do better? What if I didnt have to endure lectures in Chem 1800 with 500 other students? What if I had had mentors that could help me navigate college? What if the institution had provided better funding so that I wouldn’t have had to work 30+ hours a week? What if I had had Latinx faculty in my STEM classes with whom I could connect? I cant help but think about all of the other Latinx students who have also been pushed out of STEM. What if we all experienced empowering, validating spaces like the ones shared by the community college students in my research study? 

I share my story to remind us that the interaction between Latinx faculty and Latinx students in community colleges is a powerful catalyst for transformative impact. Outcomes from these interactions include cultural relevance in STEM curriculum, mentorship and role modeling, a sense of belonging, breaking stereotypes, developing a STEM identity, advocacy, and support in navigating transfer pathways. The future of Latinx STEM success begins at community colleges.



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