Theresa “Terry” Martinez believes in the power of honest dialogue and difficult conversations. That is what has anchored her and driven her in a more than 30-year career revolving around student life and advocacy at various higher education institutions including Columbia and Johns Hopkins. But perhaps it also stems from almost having her own voice silenced at a young age.Read More
Perhaps it was taking his first computer course at the University of South Alabama in 1983—Micro-computing Systems in Education—that made Dr. Monte Tatom see his future. Or maybe it was that time in 1999 when PDAs looked pretty futuristic to many, but Tatom, then a high school principal, saw at his fingertips all the possibilities technology could bring to educators. He stretched his teachers a little bit, he readily admits, but wanted to make sure they were ready for the 21st century.
“If we don’t embrace technology, we’ll be left behind,” Tatom told them. Every class at their school had Ethernet connections and several computers, including one for each teacher.
“I didn’t want pencil and paper communication with me,” he said. He wanted emails. It was a difficult transition and concept for many of his teachers back then. But Tatom jumped into the field of instructional technology and embraced it—learning it, teaching it, living with it—and has ever since.
Armed with a Ph.D. in educational administration from Auburn University, he worked in K-12 education for 26 years before moving to Freed-Hardeman University (FHU) in Tennessee in 2006. As an associate professor of education in the college of education & behavioral sciences, he started dabbling in online classes, served as director of“iLearn: Integrating Student Learning and Collaborative Technology” and became a member in the Tennessee Educational Technology Association.
Once he started teaching advanced technology for administrators, more and more students, educators and administrators saw the ripple effect value of such classes. He was asked to make the class applicable for counselors and then for educators. He did.
In 2014, he started developing the online Master of Education in Instructional Technology Program. Approved in 2016, he and his colleagues created the syllabus and Blackboard portion of the program. Set to launch this Summer—2017—it seems he has brought the best of his expertise, experience and excitement in the field of instructional technology to the table. The program shows how technology is interwoven with our way of life and can enhance the way education is taught and students can learn.
“It’s an important fact that for K-20, technology is not going to go away,” Tatom said. “It’s going to continue to have an impact. Take that new piece of technology to develop the learning in a preschool. How am I going to take that to help a young learner in fifth grade? It will keep evolving—but without textbooks because they go out of date six months after they’re published.”
The four-term master’s program is entirely online, cohort based and designed to provide students with the skills to effectively use instructional technology within teaching and learning for Pre-K through 20. It is also designed to provide the needed skills to develop up-to-date online system and professional training and continued learning for the 21st century employee. The 31-unit program, at $570 per unit, can be completed in 14 months.
Once completed, educators can have an edge when applying for jobs.
“This credential will help teachers distinguish themselves as leaders in their schools,” said Leah Shull, one of Tatom’s former students. “Many teachers shy away from technology, but teachers who embrace it will find that it can infuse life and even joy into their classrooms.”
A big plus of the program is that prior learning experience (PLE) can apply toward the degree and competency. The candidate may qualify to submit PLE by building and delivering a portfolio of evidence to prove s/he has the experience. Up to five courses of credit can be earned.
“The M.Ed. in Instructional Technology program continues the University’s strategic efforts to provide increased access to quality online programs that meet workforce needs and demands,” said Dr. C. J. Vires, provost and vice president for academics. “Our online programs provide greater access to affordable advanced degrees for nontraditional and diverse populations that are well beyond the University’s traditional service area and service sectors.”
For educators, the challenge is to guide them to the resources and have them teach students how to use technology—and integrate it in lessons, Tatom said.
“Unfortunately, the importance of technology has widened the ‘digital divide,’ a term for the division between tech haves and have-nots,” said Shull who is currently a technology integration specialist, a doctoral student in educational technology leadership at New Jersey City University and a sixth grade language arts teacher in Chester County, Tennessee.
“As our world becomes more global, it’s more important than ever that all students are able to compete on a global stage. Technology, when deployed well, can help bridge some of the gaps that traditional instruction has left. By enabling teachers to target instruction to each individual child, technology offers real hope for overlooked minorities.”
Tatom’s former students like Shull have firsthand knowledge in how instructional technology can impact their teaching and students’ learning for the better.
“Gone are the days where a teacher can stand at the front of the room lecturing while students dutifully take notes,” Shull said. “Today’s well-prepared educator should be aware of the tools that are available to support student learning and should know how to integrate them into the classroom. As our society becomes increasingly reliant on technology, it is vital that educators prepare their students for their role in a technological world.”
That world includes people from all walks of life, any age group, to fill in any industry, with current and future technology, Tatom explained. It will give many a voice and a platform and a way to improve the world as we know it. “You can teach junior high students, people in nursing homes and business outreach on how to put together programs,” Tatom said. “You’ll want to think outside the box—and sometimes even throw that box away.”
For more info on the M.Ed. Instructional Technology at FHU, visit: https://www.fhu.edu/academics/graduate/education/med-instructional-technology •
Attending a vocational high school started Keyli Panduro’s passion for the medical profession. While in college, she became an EMT. Then she declared her major—nursing. “I wanted to deal more with patient care and have more connection with my patients as opposed to just curing them as a doctor would,” Panduro said.
With her EMT training, she chose to transfer to William Paterson University in New Jersey because the nursing program had diversity, a good reputation and technology.
“There’s a lot of technology already in the health care field,” Panduro said. “We have to stay on top of it.” As an EMT, she explained, there are cameras in the ambulance. A doctor can see patients’ faces and can treat them virtually. “With technology, if we treat patients faster, they can live longer.”
The 22-year-old Panduro couldn’t have timed her transfer to William Paterson more perfectly. Hands-on labs and state-of-the-art technology were about to enhance the already-reputable nursing program at a whole new level.
The program already had a strong foundation. About to celebrate its 50th anniversary in March, enrollment is at 500 students; more than 300 are undergraduates, 140 are in the master’s program and 22 students are earning their doctorate. More than 50 make up the nursing faculty.
In January 2016, the grand opening of the 80,000 square foot University Hall breathed new life to the nursing program. University Hall, a two-story, glass-filled building, complete with an atrium, and a Speech and Hearing Clinic for diagnostic and therapeutic services for the community, also relocated the Nel Bolger, RN Nursing Laboratory. It added two updated patient simulation laboratories and a control room to provide enhanced clinical training, three nursing basic skills labs and four additional nursing simulation labs.
“They’re very sophisticated,” said Kathleen Waldron, president of William Paterson University. “You would think you’re in a hospital room. Students would have to take turns learning how to handle patients. Now they get more lab time. They get more time before stepping into hospitals.”
Waldron explained that funding for the state-of-the-art building came from the New Jersey “Building Our Future” Bond Act. The university chipped in $10 million to the $30 million from the state. Not since 1988 had there been such a bold move for construction. The first priority had to go toward a science and health focus since that would also benefit those related professions in the state. It was a win-win for the university and the community at large. It seemed everyone was on board to make the project a reality.
“It took eighteen months to build, we finished on budget and six months ahead of schedule,” Waldron said. Even in the coldest of winters the construction crew worked to make this happen, so doors could open for the spring semester, she said.
More than 300 state and local officials attended the event. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno addressed the crowd, saying, “We all know in New Jersey health care is going to be the top provider of jobs. What will happen in the building is not only going to serve the community through its clinics, but it’s going to help people all over this state in a way you can’t put a dollar value on.”
Dedicated to the health and sciences, such communication disorders and public health, as well as the nursing program, approximately 5,000 students use University Hall. The addition of all the state-of-the-art facilities has enhanced the caliber of learning, resources for teaching, quality of hands-on labs and academic standards.
Putting the Practical to Use: Simulation Labs
For 27 years, Vicki Coyle has taught in the nursing department at William Paterson. For years, she was a labor and delivery nurse and teaches critical thinking courses that test practical hands-on skills. “In a lab with a patient critical thinking is not a linear process. You can’t make assumptions. You take a problem, and with your nursing information ask, ‘What am I going to do about it? Is it relevant or is it irrelevant?’”
Students get theory classes, but in the labs, they put critical thinking and clinical judgment class concepts to the test as they go through guided simulations. In the simulation labs, Coyle said, they are split into small groups of seven to 10 students and will get to do a head-to-toe assessment of a mannequin laid out on the table.
Each student does rotations covering medication, documentation, vitals, pain, skills evaluation and more each time they come in. The mannequins, Coyle explained, can speak back with reactions as simple and quick as “Ouch” or a patient suffering complications or severe reactions to a procedure. Students can then adjust whatever they are doing to the “patient.”
“We are exposing them to cases they are going to see in hospital rooms and helping them develop critical thinking skills they’re going to need on a case-by-case basis.”
Panduro learns more every time she is in the lab. “The simulation labs help depict real life scenarios. We have mannequins and can insert IVs, take blood pressure, assess wounds, breathing, vital signs. They can answer our questions. Better to make our mistakes in the lab than in real life.”
From Simulation Labs to Future Success
With the high-tech training facilities and quality of professors at William Paterson’s nursing program, in five to 10 years, Waldron envisions more master’s degrees will be pursued and more qualified, diverse applicants and nurse practitioners will be the norm.
“There is such a demand on our student nurses, but our academic standards are high. I think we’re well prepared for the future.”
In addition, awareness of the trending student population can tap into future population needs.
“We have more male students, and more Hispanic male nursing students, which reflects the 26 percent Latino undergraduate population,” Waldron said.
Then student success will come down to a calling. Now in her last semester, Panduro seems committed to her chosen field. “It’s definitely been a grueling program but worth the sacrifice.” She feels more than prepared. And she sees well past being the first in her family to graduate from college.
Her long term goal is to become a flight trauma nurse—and now that will likely be a reality. “I’m leaving with an undergraduate degree and a career. I got the best of both worlds with my experience here.” •
Dr. Omar Lopez saw a wave of patriotism that flowed from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, even though it was one of the poorest counties in the U.S. His father, grandfather and other relatives served in the Armed Forces during several wars. With the examples they set, Lopez’s daily observations of veterans’ experiences and well-being left a definitive mark on his career decisions. His vision became clear: to confront society’s most vulnerable populations—Hispanics, military veterans and adult students at risk—and make a difference for them.
“The men in my family never really spoke deeply of their experience,” Lopez said. “The life experiences and stories they shared as I grew up instilled in me a respect and admiration for veterans—men and women—who have made the greatest sacrifice to defend our freedom and American way of life.”
Often times, veterans have a difficult transition to that way of life, to a civilian way of life. The transition from non-college life to an academic one adds another layer of complexity. “Our department began receiving more veteran students in 2010, around the time the military was beginning to downsize from overseas deployment. I noticed that not much was available to support veteran students, especially for those with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).”
As a professor in the Department of Occupational, Workforce, and Leadership Studies in the College of Applied Arts at Texas State University, Lopez focused on veterans and their needs in his classes. He noted how professors’ teaching strategies and practices within the context of students’ learning needs was lacking. They were less in tune for veterans.
“Vets in transitions—they’re lost,” Lopez explained. “Student veterans remain at risk for academic success. What we do in our teaching contributes to students’ learning in the classroom, but how we do our teaching is what makes the difference to students’ academic success.”
Lopez who teaches entrepreneurship, work-based learning and supervised field-based student projects, believes that to be conscientious of veteran students and their needs, faculty have a responsibility to create learning environments where all students can be self-motivated to achieve academic success. However, faculty must first identify their individual philosophy of teaching.
A common interest in veterans’ well-being brought together Lopez, Dr. Stephan Springer, an Associate Professor and former department chair who also served as a Colonel in the Texas State Guard; and Jeffrey Nelson, a graduate student completing a research study on the use of service dogs as an intervention for veterans with PTSD.
They delved into the five principles of effective instructional practice identified by the National Research Council (NRC). Their research produced Veterans in the College Classroom: Guidelines for Instructional Practices. Drawing on cognitive, developmental and educational psychology, and brain research on how people learn, they connected how the five principles create effective learning among students. “The core of these principles tap into our very nature of who we are as human beings—social-seeking animals capable of constructing from prior experiences new learning through meaningful knowledge in a variety of contexts guided by relevant feedback.”
The principles should be grounded in four broad reflection categories: teaching and learning, goals, students and self. “Only by knowing one’s values, beliefs and expectations as a teacher can we become fully aware of our students and their learning needs.”
• Connect students’ learning to previous experiences (introduce new material in a familiar context).
• Socialize the classroom learning experience (a buddy system or team work is better than individual work; inter-reliance among service members to support each other is strong).
• Differentiate the instructional context (visual, auditory, interactive, print-oriented, tactile, kinesthetic and olfactory learning styles).
• Prepare connected, organized and relevant material (keeps them focused and on task).
• Schedule feedback and active evaluations (helps define strengths, vulnerabilities, values, dreams and fears).
Take the time to learn which students are veterans. Realize some vets can react strongly to teaching strategies that act like triggers. These can be as innocent as showing a World War II documentary or banging on a desk to get attention. Awareness of differences in veteran students that are sometimes confused with deviance or that something is wrong can set them up for failure. “We believe nothing is wrong with student veterans that the practice of NRC principles cannot overcome,” Lopez said.
It is a matter of practicing a philosophy of teaching that improves awareness of potential needs. For example, body language, behavior and/or physical conditions such as profuse sweating or panting for air, may require special medical assistance. Classroom management rules that allow students to leave to attend to personal matters relieve stress. Poor or late attendance, outbursts or incoherent discourse in class, or late submissions of assignments may need referrals to additional resources. Sometimes medications factor in. Many students with PTSD and some with other disorders are on psychotropic medications that have all kinds of benefits but also disadvantages that become debilitating, Lopez said.
Setting Vets up for Success
Returning to school is a major shift in veterans’ lives and way of thinking. Even though most veterans tend not to ask for help, when professors articulate clearly what’s expected in the class, the chance for success is greater, Lopez explained.
“How and when we do communicate with students matters. They have to have a purpose behind that academic pathway.”
This success goes beyond the classroom and can affect their careers, health, relationships and opportunity to give back to the community. Professors are responsible for creating a learning environment that is nurturing and in tune to individual needs yet sets high standards. Using online technologies like discussion forums, blogs and email as well as traditional strategies, the students might just transition better as they learn how to work in teams, act, set expectations, approach professors, develop skills and advocate for themselves.
“At the end of the day, you as instructor can make or break a veteran student’s success,” Lopez said. “Be an authentic teacher and help push them out of the shadows into the light, so potential future employers can see how capable they are.”
• Become familiar with military culture. Online sources like Operation College Promise offer relevant info. http://www.operationpromiseforservicemembers.com/CVSP_Program.html
• Familiarize yourself with your institution’s resources and programs for veteran students’ needs, including health issues, academic support and referrals.
• Read “Veterans in the Classroom” http://alx.sagepub.com/supplemental •
Internationally acclaimed ceramic and clay artist Dora De Larios wasn’t going to marry the first man that came along and proposed, even though he was a keeper—and any other sixteen year old would have jumped at the chance. It was the 1950s, after all, and what young women often did—even if they aspired to go to college, which she did. The handsome Italian couldn’t believe she wouldn’t marry him—until she threw the engagement ring out the car window.
“I was born into a family that was passionate about everything,” De Larios said. “The women in my family are strong in spirit.”
Saying goodbye to the proposal meant she could focus on what she already was passionate about—her art. But she would need to buck another tradition to pursue it. “I had a Mexican father, and if I wanted to go to college, I had to stay close to home. That’s the way it was.”
Luckily, the University of Southern California (USC) was nearby, but at $14 a unit, they couldn’t afford it, she said. She received a scholarship but had to maintain a 3.8 GPA. “That was like asking me to jump over the moon. When I got a C+ in biology, it was like getting the Academy Award.”
With her artistic capabilities, she was recruited to be a biology medical illustrator—and turned it down. Her focus was on Art History and Philosophy, the basis of understanding different cultures and religions, she said. This built her curiosity when studying with ceramists Otto and Vivika Heino and helped to develop her unique style. “I had a visceral connection to stone, to clay.”
Shortly after graduating, she married USC architect Bernard Judge. They traveled throughout Europe on $6.50 a day for thirteen months, said De Larios. The travels added to the richness of what she had learned growing up—an appreciation for cultural beauty.
Working with clay, steel, wood, sculpture or plastic, De Larios features opposing forces in her art including mythological creatures and goddesses at once whimsical and fierce, Japanese and Mexican influences, Catholic and pagan, and the mystical and powerful feminine form.
After teaching ceramics at USC and UCLA, she took a leap of faith. “I thought if I started my studio, they would come.” Irving Place Studio was born, became home to a handful of other women artists—and local business owners bought their art.
“We had multicultural support. Los Angeles is a convergence of so many cultures that can clash at times, but it’s vibrant. Our city is fabulous that way.”
Her work has made its mark on the city and beyond.
In 1977, her 12 place settings of dinnerware were selected for a White House luncheon and subsequent exhibition. She led the design of a massive mural at Walt Disney World. There is a blue porcelain seascape for the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, a monolith in cast cement and textured bronze in Pasadena entitled “Home to Quetzalcoatl,” and three “Koi Goddesses” in L.A.’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel fountain. She has served as representative to the World Craft Congresses in Mexico, Japan and Austria.
The list goes on and spans decades.
The Female Influences
“The thing I’m most proud of is I was born Mexican because the culture is most influential, and all the women in my family are central to that,” De Larios said.
She is still close to her 104-year-old aunt, her example of strength and loving kindness.
Her mother who worked at Max Factor instilled in her work ethic and pride. When she was 17, De Larios worked for her one summer on the lipstick line. “I couldn’t keep up with it. I was Lucille Ball in that famous scene with the chocolates. I started throwing lipsticks over my shoulder. She was humiliated, and I was humbled.”
Her big-hearted grandmother, Mama Grande, had 12 children, shared dichos and always seemed to find food to feed others, De Larios said. With the light coming in through the blind shafts, her kitchen seemed like a sacred place. “I loved it all. It was so graphic.”
Irving Place Studio Today
Growing up with an artist becomes a lifestyle. “Artists don’t ever stop,” said De Larios’ daughter, Sabrina Judge who is also an artist, songwriter and mother of two. “It’s how their creativity works. My mother inspired me.”
Judge had a secret dream: for people to see and buy her mother’s work. “She’s been working for so long, and in her world travels, she has drawn from classical design elements in an honest way that people can relate to, that resonates. It’s all museum quality work.”
Collaborating with her husband, Aaron Glascock, they launched a new Irving Place Studio where De Larios’ work could be showcased all the time.
“I wanted to call it Irving Place Studio because that was a magical time in our lives,” Judge explained. “That was the name of her studio with only women artists there—with this energy that was incomparable. It’s reminiscent of times past and a tribute to my mother’s work.”
Now the three collaborate on a line of dinnerware, specializing in artisanal ceramics like bowls and plates hand-thrown on a potter’s wheel. De Larios formulates the glazes, and Judge oversees the glazing and firing.
De Larios Legacies
De Larios’ work was honored in 2009 in “Fifty Years of the Art of Dora de Larios,” a major retrospective at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit, entitled “Sueños/Yume,” featured goddess and warrior sculptures and Mexican and Japanese inspired pieces.
In 2011, her work was in “Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation” at the Autry National Center, and “Common Ground” at the American Museum of Ceramic Art, both part of the J. Paul Getty “Pacific Standard Time” exhibitions on L.A. art from 1945-1980.
Executive Director of the USC Latino Alumni Association, Domenika Lynch, rallied to have the trailblazing Trojan recognized for her works at the 2015 Alumni Spotlight Ceremony. Even though De Larios was not pictured in the USC yearbook, Judge said, the Spotlight brought her home to where she started.
Judge introduced her mother that night as “fierce, a warrior who nurtures relationships like a garden.”
Diagnosed with cancer in 2014, De Larios reflects the fierce warrior of her works. “We’re all on borrowed time. No matter how bleak it looks, life is about spirituality. I’ve always been blessed. I love life even more. I’m going to persevere and be busy working.”
For now, Irving Place Studio is a sacred place where mother and daughter can create art—and perhaps try new traditions, leave a legacy. “It would be a waste to not try,” Judge said. “Keep trying. That’s her spirit. That’s my mom coming through me.” •
Ingrid Betancourt lived in that hell. A presidential candidate in 2002, she was kidnapped by guerrilla revolutionaries and held hostage for six years deep in the Colombian jungles. The daily horrors, terror, fears and ambiguities made her question her purpose and threatened to strip her of dignity, but also made her pull up core strength and stamina she didn’t know simmered deep within her.
How did she hold onto sanity when she was surrounded by aberrant behavior? When she was assaulted and ostracized by captors and fellow hostages alike, when every simple freedom had been denied her, when she endured bouts of solitary confinement because of her four escape attempts, when betrayal went deep and loyalty lisped, humanity evaporated and values were compromised?
She held onto a basic freedom that anchored her through those doubt-filled days and scary nights.
“I still had one freedom: to decide who I wanted to be and how I would carry myself,” she says. “I thought, ‘I won’t bend, won’t be what they want me to be.’”
Betancourt’s horrific ordeal came to life when she spoke at the University of California-San Diego, and again in her book, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle. An L.A. Times book review called it “an unforgettable epic of moral courage and human endurance.”
Born in Bogotá but raised in Paris, Betancourt held her politician father in high esteem and accepted his challenge to one day return to give back to their country. Her intentions were good; her timing was not.
She realized she needed to document her hostage experience to educate and enlighten and put into perspective the plight of the poor, of her country and of her own precarious position as a politician. The title of her book was inspired by a poem by Pablo Neruda and made her recognize her mortality and what would happen after death. She could be recognized and remembered because of her words. “I needed to transform those years I had lost into something positive,” she says.
She tells of clichéd lessons learned about a life well-lived. She tells of second chances. She tells of truths being unearthed, fallacies being shattered and how hope can be a driving force. She tells of fear taking root, unforgiving and all-encompassing. She tells of how her deep belief in com-passion and human justice faltered. She tells of how her family’s love sustained her.
Yet, writing the book wasn’t therapeutic.
“It was torture,” she says. “Other hostages were moving on and, because I was writing, I was still in the jungle. It would be very difficult for people to understand how we had lived in the jungle. Then there were problems when I arrived back in freedom. I couldn’t talk about it. The emotions are still vivid. But I needed to give testimony, share with my family what had happened.”
She wrote outside of France, in the mountains, white with snow, a heavenly world away from that hellish place. At the end of the day, to look through the window and see she was someplace else helped in healing as she faced the pages daily. “Recalling was not a problem. The problem was that we, the hostages, cannot forget.”
What Betancourt Learned About Humanity
In captivity with 14 other hostages, interconnections were made. Seeing human nature evolve and humanity disintegrate made Betancourt realize individual limitations, strengths and flaws. Personalities clashed and opinions on escape or securing freedom ran the gamut. How each of them dealt with adversity and humiliation was traumatizing but brought out the essence of a person and his or her strengths and weakness, explains Betancourt. They wanted to save and be saved. It was a humbling revelation for her. “We all want to be heroes, but we’re not. You’re just you.”
The abduction and captivity tested them, played mind games. “In abduction, you lose identity. Without freedom, we lose the compass to our soul, lose who we are. Without individuality, you question, who am I?”
There were thousands of silent moments because sentries would see their communication as threatening. Betancourt refers to different kinds of silences in her book. “We are beings of communication. When silence is an option, and is self-imposed and your choice, it’s sweet. When silence is an order, and is imposed, it’s similar to dying.”
Submitted to these extreme conditions, Betancourt likened the experience to a concentration camp – hostages in one crammed hovel, being watched 24 hours a day. She and her assistant entered a space already colonized by three American contractors and seven Colombians. Securing inches of space they could call their own became a mission.
“We knew we were manipulated,” she explains. “Guards wanted to divide us, but initially we felt solidarity and embraced love. We were like a family.”
That connection did not last as the days turned into years. Survival of the fittest became the mission as they scrounged for more food for sustenance, or something to read to keep their minds sharp, radios to listen to in order to stay connected with the outside world, and protecting any tiny semblance of personal connection to family so that they could stay sane. Guerrillas assaulted and humiliated them, peeling back layers of dignity, pride and humanity until all that was left was doubt and mistrust, and often, a disconnect between bodies and souls.
“It brought the awareness of true freedom we take for granted. I had lost all sorts of basic freedoms – to sit down, stand up, to sleep, have space. All of these were taken away. I lost everything.” There were points in her captivity where she could no longer bear her situation. She attempted to escape four times. “For every attempted escape, I got recaptured. But I never gave up. I would say, ‘next time I will succeed.’”
As the years passed, however, post-traumatic stress disorder started taking root. Stereotyped images were shattered. For Betancourt, the lack of resilience of fellow hostages who were American soldiers surprised her. These abducted military men and policemen who had been trained for war were not prepared for the mental wear and tear they experienced.
“I was amazed to see that once they were faced with extreme cruelty, humiliation and unfair treatment, they were not psychologically prepared to withstand it.”
That insight affected her personally, as well. “It was difficult to accept that I was not as strong as I thought I was.”
Fallacies Shattered/Truths Unearthed
Betancourt was running for president because she felt it was time for a change. In her capture, what changed dramatically was her viewpoint of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, her captors. She had thought they would have something to say, to be reasonable and insightful, but their power trip made her unearth certain truths that shattered their image. “However, you have to draw a line between the FARC as an organization and the troop made by young men and women.”
According to Betancourt, the FARC started out with all the rebellious, chivalrous attitude and magnitude of saviors to the poor in the 1960s. It addressed land reform and social justice, equality and compensation. It promised a better life for those who followed the FARC instead of other politicians.
“Sometimes we think of radical as romantic,” says Betancourt. “There’s that romanticism that was associated with Che Guevara, fighting for the poor. I liked that idea.”
Instead, what she saw behind enemy lines as a hostage made her unearth a truth about the FARC and its stance on poverty. It did not fight for the poor to have better privileges or social justice, or to be fair, she says. It used the poor to get better opportunities for itself.
“I realized it was all fake. They lost their soul, their direction. It’s corrupted beyond belief. If they were really working for the poor, there would have been great strides made by now. One guerrilla said, ‘human rights are a bourgeois concept.’ And I had to take another look.”
For the guerrillas and peasants from around the country, a hierarchy existed in the jungle, with drug trafficking as a major source to obtain weapons and privileges such as better food and clothes. People can be very naïve and are duped, says Betancourt. Girls could become prostitutes and work their way up to be partner of a commander because that was a position of power and privilege and guaranteed a better life – or at least a way to fill a belly and leave destitute environments. Being a guerrilla – or with one – was an upgrade.
The FARC, however, lost credibility by holding the hostages so long as trophies and instruments of their propaganda, she believes. It became internationally known, but more as a band of terrorists or drug traffickers than rebels with a cause.
“This is not just Colombia’s problem,” says Betancourt. “It’s society’s problem, a global problem, a problem of terrorism. There is a very inhu-mane logic to their existence. Like Pandora’s box, the monster is unleashed.”
What Betancourt Learned About Herself
Betancourt looked to her family as inspiration, giving her principles and a work ethic that took her from dual citizenship and a life of privilege in Paris back to her roots in Colombia. She attended the Institute d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, also served in Colombia’s Congress. Her father, a diplomat, worked at the United Nations and was assigned to the embassy in Paris. Betancourt found herself becoming an anti-corruption activist and, when she moved to Colombia in the late 1990s, worked her way up from Colombia’s Finance Ministry to the House of Representatives and then the Senate. She didn’t like the endless corruption that distorted all the good that could be done by government and how it affected families. “There were things that I just couldn’t accept. The lack of justice always triggers things in me. It’s difficult to shut up when someone is being treated inhumanely, when something’s not right.”
That’s what led her to run for president and to come up against the FARC. After the hostages’ rescue by Colombian armed forces in 2008, the concept of freedom changed her perspective and life purpose. According to the New World Encyclopedia online, she is seen as “a courageous woman ... who sacrificed everything for her country.” She has received awards such as the Légion d’honneur and the Concord Prince of Austria award, as well as a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
to focus on calming her spirit, living an examined life and making up for lost time.
“In daily lives, we forget little details,” she says. “We give ourselves rea-sons not to be the best we can be. We are nasty because we’re tired or didn’t have breakfast or had a bad discussion. There is no justification for this when it can be harmful for the ones we love.”
She regrets not enough time with her father, who died while she was a hostage, with her children, with her mother, her sister. She has a deep admiration for them, for never giving up. Her father’s death affected her profoundly. “I thought I’d always find time later. Life proved me wrong. We suffered in a way not possible to describe. The most important thing is your present time, not some time in the future.”
Her heartache stretches to the political arena. A lawsuit was brought against the Colombian government because there is a law protecting victims of terrorism; they can claim compensation. “Other hostages asked for it, but when I did, it was a huge scandal.”
Seen as a political threat, she was attacked in court, and her reputation suffered, and she felt betrayed. “It was a lie, grotesque, unfair. Colombians hated me and turned a victim into a criminal. If I received a hundred times more compensation if I went back – I would never go back to that jungle or time in my life.”
She seeks instead inner peace to help her through the onslaught of celebrity status and personal bashing. “You go to that place inside of you. It doesn’t prevent you from facing problems and obstacles, but you can still retreat to it to put things into perspective. It doesn’t mean you won’t feel pain or feel sorrow, but you’ll be okay.”
Her Silence Has an End
Even after her ordeal, Betancourt has hope for healing – for Colombia and herself. “What happened to me and all my compadres was abominable, but pain allows you to grow in a spiritual way.”
In this day of technology at one’s fingertips, she hopes students and young people won’t lose sight of what is important – that humanity and connection that makes them take stock of their lives. “We have become, with all those toys that we have, very distracted. The availability you need to have, always answering to everyone except to yourself, with no time to be silent, can be detrimental.”
This is when she suggests silence.
“Take an hour a day, or whatever it takes, to ponder what you did during the day. What was right? What was not so right? What matters? Do not lose contact with your soul.”
Betancourt embraces that contact with her soul now. The haunted, sad look in her eyes she believes will stay with her forever, but even with that sadness, she can be grateful. “The essence of who I was died. I was harmed and wounded in many ways but persevered, even when I thought I was feeble.”
From her perseverance, she hopes her children have learned they can-not compromise essential principles. That there will always be causes like social justice, anti-corruption, and the fight against drug trafficking that need to be fought. That standing up for what one believes is right might result in sacrifices, consequences, even persecution. Sometimes, silence needs to be broken.
“For freedom, you have to be tough. You need to have a spine. You can’t give up, especially when you’re afraid.”
When Pablo Baler was asked to join an international geophysical team studying the Himalayas as a journal keeper, he knew the opportunity to travel and document the findings would be a dream job. A University of California (UC)-Berkeley doctoral student then, Baler saw value in the written word to connect communities, educate and enlighten – and open a window to another world. “They took me [along] as a sidekick,” says Baler. “It became the highlight of my life.”
In journal keeping, Baler wrote and stories unfolded. In return, his passion for travel and cultures, education and writing intertwined. “Traveling around is the only way to get a real education.” He has traveled to the Middle East, Latin America, the Far East – but also earned a Ph.D. in Hispanic languages and literature from UC-Berkeley, a master’s in Latin American literature from Stanford and a B.A. in philosophy and Spanish literature from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
With extensive journalistic experience in his homeland, Argentina, his communication skills came to fruition writing for a variety of publications, including the Buenos Aires Herald and the Clarín, and included a stint as a newswriter for Univision in San Francisco.
Writing became a way of life, and expanded to poetry, novels, screenplays. Always there is a story, he believes, stories that need to be told. When travel is not an option, becoming immersed in a community and listening to and documenting people’s stories is a great option. “Being exposed to other cultures and opening your mind to world views is very enriching for journalists, politicians, everybody.”
The “everybody” now includes Baler’s students. Baler joined the faculty at California State University-Los Angeles in 2006 in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature, teaching Spanish, 20th-century Latin American literature and creative writing. With his journalistic background, however, he homed in on the largely Hispanic community in the heart of L.A., especially young people, who needed a voice.
He looked at his brilliant Spanish students. He knew that they needed to connect. He saw the very real need for quality journalism to reflect the community, providing news coverage in print, broadcast, radio and online – all in Spanish.
He brainstormed with Jon Beaupré, associate professor from Cal State’s communications department and news director of The University Times, to develop a Spanish journalism curriculum, determined to bring hands-on journalism training to students. Beaupré, who earned an M.F.A. from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, has extensive experience as a radio producer, reporter and contributor to internationally syndicated programming. Their combined expertise, accomplishments and passion with the media fueled their efforts.
The Spanish journalism program was launched in 2009 with two classes, theory and fundamentals, followed by a hands-on immersion. The response was amazing, and the classes were full, Baler says. The ultimate goal is to offer a B.A. in Spanish journalism at Cal State L.A., the first such program in undergraduate studies, Baler believes. Florida International University offers a Spanish-language master’s degree in journalism and multimedia.
There is no guarantee that a bilingual journalism major can write or produce quality content in Spanish, Baler explains. Many journalism schools offer a perspective of Latinos in the English media. But none, as far as Baler knows, offer journalism courses training students in Spanish, improving the quality and scope of their work. Neither the quality of Spanish journalism nor the quantity of Spanish-speaking journalists in the U.S. has kept up with the staggering growth of Spanish-language media outlets and their audiences, says Baler.
“We are strategically located in the L.A. basin. If there is a place in the United States to do this, it’s Los Angeles. Latinos prefer to hear, read, and see the news in Spanish, but the quality of Spanish-language coverage has to improve.”
Laura Cortez, born and raised in Los Angeles, was a Spanish major when she took the practicum. “It’s imperative that we do this in Spanish in Los Angeles. The population and demographics support this. I don’t understand how we cannot. Even if people who live in the area speak and understand English, if Spanish is their first language, they can relate more to coverage in Spanish.”
Future journalists must be able to adapt to the accelerating pace of a changing competitive media. The demand for a very specific, wellrounded type of journalist is evident: someone who can multitask, such as generating stories, producing, fact checking, writing, reporting, editing and Web designing. A Spanish journalism major will provide the much-needed edge for graduates entering into such a competitive market, especially in Los Angeles, says Baler. “Even though English-based journalism and media in general is dwindling, the Spanish-language media equivalent as the source of news is exploding because of the demographic explosion,” he says.
According to statistics provided by Baler, there were 342 Spanish-language TV stations operating in the U.S. in 2009. Spanish-language dailies have surpassed the two million mark in combined circulation. The U.S. Spanish-language print media boom has been even more remarkable, given the challenges facing Englishlanguage print market, which dropped nearly 10 percent to less than 56 million. The Spanish-language market has grown with the population because advertisers like McDonald’s – no longer just mom and pop places – now have an interest in reaching this audience. In addition, radio, for example, is following the American format. Now there’s news talk, sports talk and a variety of music stations featuring a variety of music, from rancheros to hip hop, to reggaeton to oldies.
Radio stations account for 11.1 percent of listening, outpacing the overall market in revenue and audience growth. The online Spanish-speaking market is nearly 20 percent of the Internet market today.
In the first class, theoretical fundamentals are taught, such as identifying trends, genres, video and audio content, and also includes learning to write objectively and more concisely. With Baler’s contacts around the world, he brought in accomplished speakers, colleagues and journalists from Spain, Argentina and Mexico to tell of their journalism experience firsthand, sometimes through Skype hookups. “Students were excited to study a real profession in a language that is core to the community,” Baler explains. “The idea of having an actual profession, of something to do with their language, was very appealing to students.”
The second class put them to work with hands-on training, including providing content, choosing stories, interviewing, writing, editing and uploading to the website, queondas.org. Coolstatela.com and the University Times were already established through the communications department. Queondas.org was born as the sister website, translating certain works, but also providing content that was more applicable to the Hispanic population and perspective.
“I’m very hands-on,” says Baler. “I want students to go to East L.A. and write a vignette on something they see, edit it and upload it onto queondas.org. They need to see they can have an impact and give a voice to those who don’t have one.”
Cortez agrees. One of her favorite research pieces she wrote was on women who are going back to school and getting educated but have kids at home. “A young woman’s voice as a mother is underrepresented,” she says. “There are people who want to be heard, so I need to get out there.”
What Cortez liked best about the course was the liberty Baler gave students in choosing which topics to cover. “He trusted us in what we believed was important. He would tell us, ‘You know what’s affecting your community, your culture. Pick your topic and do in-depth investigation.”
The freedom to discuss all kinds of topics grew them as a family. “These issues are core to all of us,” says Cortez. “We could talk about anything.”
In addition, she saw their role in the future of journalism. Newspapers that have been around for decades, like La Opinion, don’t always reflect younger voices, the college student, or the new voices of today, says Cortez.
“We need to hear more voices,” she says. “We are doing a bigger service in our community in the way we relay information now.”
According to careerjet.com, there are numerous job postings for journalists with Spanish/bilingual needs. Speaking or writing Spanish does not guarantee journalistic excellence in covering news. “It’s our responsibility to turn this into high-quality journalism from the language perspective,” says Baler. Baler has greater projections for coming decades as the Spanish journalism curriculum unfolds. As an alternative, Cal State can offer a B.A. in Spanish with emphasis in Spanish journalism, he says. Either way, Baler knows that his students, trained to be professional Spanish journalists in the U.S., will start a much-needed trend.
“The media feels that if it covers the Hispanic community, that is enough. But it’s not. We don’t want Spanglish. We see this effort coming together in both languages. We want to enrich both languages, not impoverish each of them. There is lots of room for growth here.”
The only negative aspect of a career in journalism is the pay, says Baler. The reality is, top anchors on top Spanish-language television stations make one-third the amount of money as top English-speaking anchors, he says. When Baler left Berkeley, he was offered the position at Cal State L.A. and one at Univision. The difference in salary was sad. Perhaps, he says, by the time his students become professionals, their pay scale will reflect their talent value. “How do you reward their hard work, quality and mission?” he asks. “It has to trickle from producers and writers. We will also train students to get Latinos into these decision-making positions.”
In addition, he believes gigs at local stations as interns and becoming tech savvy will also help students. The internship structure is a godsend, he says, but students need to feel that their time investment now will pay off later. There are other hurdles to get over as Spanish journalism takes root.
“I don’t like to be a traditionalist, but I have to wrap my mind around changes and make sense of them,” says Baler. “I have to rethink how we process news. News is fast, no doubt about it, more immediate. Access to it in 15-second clips is the norm now. The challenge is to make people read to the end of longer pieces and keep their attention in all journalistic endeavors. There is a fine line there, but maybe we can have a historical, transitional place in producing quality journalism that audiences relate to and want to read, see or hear.”
Cortez will pursue a master’s degree in sociology or become a translator; either way, the skills she learned in the Spanish journalism classes built her confidence and made her step out of her comfort zone. She believes all her fellow students have taken away something of value. “We will be more competitive in the work force,” says Cortez. “Even if they go into an English-language journalism market, their quality bilingual ability at all levels will make them an asset.”
With the budget crisis in California, everything is on hold for implementing the B.A. in Spanish journalism – except for Baler. He moves forward in his ideas and in his mission. “I go back and forth with all the different hats I wear.”
As a writer, he is working on a script, a book of short stories, and editing a 21st-century anthology of new trends in the art world. As a professor, he finds his students inspire him. In five years, he wishes to have a full-fledged Spanish journalism program with media outlet partnerships in L.A. for internship opportunities that can lead to employing his students. When his students reflect the voices in the Latino community, they realize their connection and commitment to that community.
“There is a method to the madness, I suppose,” Baler says. “We will prepare students to do business in a diverse, global marketplace in which Hispanics have significant influence. To fill these outlets with quality journalists will be a win-win situation.”
In 2006-07, hate mail came nonstop to the office of Dr. Arcela Núñez-Alvarez at California State University-San Marcos (CSUSM). It wasn’t the first time she’d been targeted. But this time, the response was to her editorial commentary in a local newspaper on an immigration issue. Scathing e-mails and letters attacked her, saying she had taken advantage of the American system as an illegal immigrant, reaping the benefits of education and health care while she grew up here.
“They knew everything about me,” says Núñez-Alvarez, a history professor and civil rights activist. “I didn’t feel safe.”
Throughout her lifetime, Núñez-Alvarez has witnessed the bashing of immigrants, sometimes subtle, often blatant and, on occasion, violent. Racist hate crimes at the University of California-San Diego garnered national coverage in 2010. And hate messages were written around the Cal State San Marcos campus in North San Diego County.
“There’s a new sense of fear,” Núñez-Alvarez says. “It seems as if we are taking so many steps backwards, as if we went back in time.”
Addressing that fear and finding ways to restore dignity and pride to the Latino community is crucial to moving past the injustices. As interim director of the National Latino Research Center (NLRC) at CSUSM, Núñez-Alvarez is passionate about the center’s commitment to community outreach and awareness. The Oral History Project was launched with the belief that communities are built on personal contributions. Latinos’ personal stories validate their historical presence in a community. The idea of the Oral History Project is to preserve Southern California’s historic multicultural richness one person at a time – and Latinos are paramount in this history.
With the help of the San Diego County Library, the grass-roots outreach effort travels from library to library and stays for several months in a given location. Elders in the community are invited to document and record their personal stories, which are captured through audio/video methods, letters, diaries, professional and business papers, photo albums and artifacts. The Oral History Project also provides an opportunity for cultural engagement when museums, college libraries, city halls, community centers and similar outlets preserve, recognize and exhibit different voices as part of community history. “History can become skewed if told and accepted from only one perspective,” she says. Despite negative media coverage, Latinos have to believe their individual contributions have helped build communities in this nation.
“Our stories fit into a broader collective history. Inclusion reflects the multicultural society we live in. We can move away from differences and aim to find connection of humanity.”
There is no bitterness when she speaks. Instead, Núñez-Alvarez speaks with confidence and the assurance that this is a way to validate Latinos’ positive presence in this country. “The ‘personal’ is core to history in this community, in this nation,” says Núñez-Alvarez. “How do we make everyone in our community feel valued? Where does your story fit in the growth of the U.S.? They all matter.”
Idyllic images of Mexico and California history intertwining are what Arcela imagined when she was growing up and taking history classes in her native Guanajuato. Her grandpa lived in the United States; his stories were all positive – that there was plenty of everything one could imagine, that no one had to worry about anything, that everyone lived in big mansions, had lots of clothes, and that there were grocery stores on every corner.
Núñez-Alvarez believed her own positive impressions after learning about her homeland in relation to the U.S.-Mexican War. She was taught that Mexican citizens would have certain rights and guarantees after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and California and Mexico would be positively connected. Culture shock awaited her when she moved to Escondido, a San Diego suburb.
“That’s the story I heard there, but here, in high school and college, I heard the opposite – that Mexicans didn’t belong here, that I couldn’t speak Spanish, that I wasn’t welcome. History didn’t make sense. As an immigrant in the U.S., I had to figure out why history had been so skewed.” So poor was her family, their only hope was America. Her father had come many years before them. Her mother struggled. Despite all her labor, it was a desperate time. She sold everything they owned to move. Her family begged her to leave one or two of her six daughters behind to make the transition easier; she refused.
Her mother inspired Núñez-Alvarez beyond measure. “My mom was actually the first female to migrate from our hometown. I never saw her have second thoughts, ever. She said, ‘I’m not going to give up my kids; they’re my responsibility. We all make it together or we all die together.’ We didn’t question her. We had no idea where we were going, nor did we have a choice.” Reality hit them even before they arrived. All their luggage was stolen in Tijuana. They lived with an uncle for a month until they found an apartment.
Her mother worked 12-hour shifts at a textile factory, walking there before sunlight with a purpose, says Núñez-Alvarez. “We were her purpose. She made the move and worked that hard for us. She believed we were here for a good education.”
All the immigrants they came with had a connection to each other because the transition was not easy. At school, Núñez-Alvarez’s older sisters were placed in the ESL program, but at the elementary school, they did not know what to do with the incoming students. “A lot of the kids were being placed in special ed classes because we didn’t speak the language,” says Núñez-Alvarez. “Sixth grade was a waste of time. I just sat in the classroom and didn’t understand one thing that was taught.”
But she had been a good student in Mexico and had solid math skills. With supportive teachers, by ninth grade she was placed in all college-prep classes. “I loved school. There was never a question about doing well. This was the unwritten expectation. We knew that’s why we were here.” Well known as the family of “those six girls” in the district, teachers and administrators helped them get donations of clothes, shoes and whatever they needed so they could concentrate on school.
Because her dad had been a farmworker here in the late ’50s, Núñez- Alvarez and her sisters were able to enroll in a migrant education program. It was their first introduction to college. One hundred migrant students from all over the state took part in a six-week immersion class at the University of California-Los Angeles to try a couple of classes and live on campus. “I took Chicano studies, wrote in the newspaper, was introduced to museums in Los Angeles,” she says. “That changed my life. That’s when I knew what I would do with my life.”
Skewed Perceptions – Magnified
As president of MEChA at her high school, Núñez-Alvarez was asked to make a presentation to the formal school board on behalf of the Mexican students. Her neighborhood was known as Little TJ (Tijuana), and her school was known as “the Mexican” school.
Another school was about to open on the other side of town. People on the board said they wanted to redraw boundary lines of the district specifically so that Mexicans could not be bused over to attend the new high school, says Núñez-Alvarez.
She witnessed the “great divide” – lots of Mexican families on one side of the room and White families on the other side. She saw faces that couldn’t connect to what she said, nor did they acknowledge the Mexican students as the individuals they had known for years. The controversy and buildup of hate and prejudice lasted for almost a year.
“They said we were lazy and didn’t value education,” Núñez-Alvarez says. “We were straight-A students and were upset when we got B’s. They said Mexicans would bring violence to the new school. We just wanted to go to the best schools possible. Their perception was uncalled for, unsubstantiated and humiliating.”
That incident opened her eyes to the truths they faced and raised her consciousness to a new level. Gone were the innocent images of a land of plenty for everyone.
In the end, even though the new school was not segregated, the social perception of disparity affected Núñez-Alvarez for a long time to come. “To me, I saw freedom as White middle class and that’s what I wanted – yet there was such a big divide. It made me ask, ‘Well, where do we fit in here?”
Taking the High Road
Today Núñez-Alvarez attempts to connect teaching with service to Latino communities through her work and personal convictions. With the National Latino Research Center educationally proactive in its approach to community enlightenment and advocacy, she has found a sturdy foothold on which change can take root.
When the NLRC was chartered in 1990 and moved from San Diego State University to Cal State San Marcos, she joined the staff to try to develop the kind of research center that could help enable better understanding of Latino communities and their needs in useful, meaningful and practical ways. “We wanted to look at broader social contacts to find bigger issues.”
Now it conducts and connects local and national research focused on Latinos. Its programs, projects, classes and outreach efforts have covered educational equity, partner violence, mental health, transportation problems, health, medical coverage, cultural competency, food stamps, juvenile justice, environmental justice, civic engagement and naturalization. The center has addressed safety and the issue of parents not sending kids to school for fear of repercussions, of being deported, of being targeted.
Once the center takes on a project, it gathers quantitative and qualitative data and aspects of the given problem, works with agencies and community reps to solve that problem and provides copies of NLRC reports and fact sheets to legislators for action at the next level, when appropriate. Opposition is almost always expected for any given problem, says Núñez-Alvarez. For example, a community effort was once made to provide internationally recognizable identification cards issued by this country for Mexican citizens.
An effort took place at a community church to register people for these standard ID cards. However, Minutemen lined the street with big American flags – but also with horrible signs, yelling the most inhumane and offensive things, she says.
“Innocent people had to pass by them and be subjected to such hate. Moms pushed strollers with all the integrity they could muster, wanting to cover their children’s ears. What an impression on a 4- or 5-year-old. How do we preserve dignity in the face of that?”
Yet her work with NLRC keeps her positive and forward thinking. She still believes there can be a great level of resilience and optimism. “As bad as it is, it’s a big source of motivation for change,” she says. “From an organizing perspective, these are precise moments we wait for – to expose the ugliness surrounding us.”
Of concern are the many kids who feel disconnected, with no sense of belonging here or there, explains Núñez-Alvarez. However, many who participated in the 2006 walkouts, for example, experienced a whole new movement. Students are in a great position to tap into their potential, to figure out their place here and be a positive influence in their communities. In addition, if the younger generation can see its elders’ sacrifices and contributions in building U.S. communities, they might more readily connect the best of both worlds to their roots. Validating Latinos’ contributions to United States history through efforts such as the Oral History Project is one way to strip away prejudices, straighten skewed perceptions and get down to basic facts. Despite the hatred and heartache, ideally there is potential for a bigger sense of human connection.
“This is a teaching moment in history,” says Núñez-Alvarez. “The divide teaches bigger lessons, expects more of us as individuals and will leave a legacy of civil rights.”
A letter of recommendation can catapult a woman into the next phase of the interview process for a particular job – or land her in the slush pile. Word choice in describing this female candidate can make or break her career. Take this scenario: there is an opening for a faculty position at a given university. The applicant pool is impressive. The competition gets stiff. And then, it’s down to two possible candidates – a man and a woman are vying for the same position. They have the same qualifications, similar educational background and work experience, number of published works, number of honors and number of courses taught.
What can tip the scale in favor of one or the other when it comes to hiring in academia? Letters of recommendation can tip that scale, especially when a reference’s word choice paints a negative, less than stellar picture of the candidate. Qualities mentioned in recommendation letters for women differ sharply from those for men, and those differences are costing women jobs and promotions in academia and medicine and, most likely, in facets of the business community.
“The seemingly innocuous word choices can be damaging to any applicant, despite his or her skills,” says Dr. Michelle “Mikki” Hebl, professor of applied psychology and management at Rice University.
With a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Hebl worked with colleague Dr. Randi Martin, the Elma Schneider Professor of Psychology at Rice, and graduate student Juan Madera (now assistant professor at the University of Houston) in a study analyzing more than 600 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. Their findings appear in Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences, published in 2010. The findings were surprising and disturbing, says Hebl. They pointed to the fact that the words used to describe women in letters of recommendation differ greatly from the words used to describe men – and this can affect their careers.
In everyday life, the words nurturing, inclusive, helpful, affectionate, kind, sympathetic, tactful and agreeable are pretty positive; however, they are known as “communal” (social or emotive) words and have historically, stereotypically described women and feminine characteristics. By contrast, words like leader, assertive, confident, intellectual, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent and outspoken are known as “agentic” (active/assertive) words and have typically described men in the past.
“We found that communal is not valued in academia, but we weren’t so surprised with those terms,” said Martin. “We were surprised when we evaluated the negative correlation between communal terms that lowered the evaluation of the recommendation letter. The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”
Martin, along with Dr. Suparna Rajaram (State University of New York-Stony Brook) and Dr. Judith Kroll (Pennsylvania State University) received an NSF ADVANCE Leadership award for 2003-20 to support the efforts of the Women in Cognitive Science (WICS) group and promote women in the field. Hebl’s background with gender and various other types of discrimination highlighted their efforts in how women can be discriminated against in the most subtle ways as they climb their own versions of the corporate ladder.
This study had also been the first to show that gender differences in letters actually affect judgments of “hireability.” A candidate chooses references she believes will write a positive picture of her and sell her talents, skills, capabilities and leadership qualifications. Often, however, “strong” words are associated with men – which gives women a disadvantage even before they can get past the slush pile and in for an interview. “There is nothing derogatory about these words, but they are not helpful to women in this fashion,” says Martin.
In the study, the research team removed names and personal pronouns from the letters and asked faculty members from other universities to evaluate how strong the letters were. They took in to account the number of years in graduate school, numbers of papers published, number of publications on which they were lead authors, number of honors received, number of years of postdoctoral education, the position applied for and the number of courses taught. They found that letters of recommendation for men were longer. Despite their qualifications, word choice in recommendation letters greatly influenced hirability ratings.
Letter writers might just not be aware of their biases, especially when it comes to word choices. “It’s a matter of awareness,” says Hebl. “This is a case where people are not aware of what they are doing with something that is seemingly small, as in word choice, but can have profound effects. We have to raise awareness.”
A letter writer – no matter what the gender – is just not aware that he or she is discriminating. If a letter writer asks himself: how do I describe this woman, what pops into his head might be traditionally stereotypical words. Those words become more salient. “All words have stereotypes historically,” says Hebl. “Women have been seen as caring, nurturing and inclusive; men as independent, assertive, strong.”
In addition, women were described with what Hebl calls “doubt raiser” words, as well, such as “has the potential to be a good leader” or “might be a good leader,” which can raise the question of whether a woman might or might not be a good addition for that faculty. The man, on the other hand, is described as a leader in phrases such as “He is already an established leader.”
The gender-specific words and differences in letters of recommendation can cost an applicant a job, a promotion or a foot in the door for top-tier positions. This study did not break down the applicant pool by ethnic categories, but Hebl realizes that being Hispanic can add more flame to the fire as the U.S. Hispanic population evolves. “We know that the landscape of people who are earning degrees is changing. The White population is growing smaller while the Hispanic population is increasing dramatically. It is critical that they’re placed in higher positions in academia, business and other careers to reflect our changing society.”
There is a call to education for Hispanics, explains Hebl, because the boom in the Hispanic population is still offset by it being the lowest in attaining higher education degrees. Once they have degrees in hand, they too will be applying for these decision-making positions. They must be made aware of the subtle biases in letters of recommendation, too.
“There is a leaky pipeline for women to be considered for positions in academia, but add being Hispanic to that gender bias. What kind of letters of recommendation can result?” Hebl’s background is in diversity and discrimination, which includes ethnic minorities, women, older people, gender, obesity, sexual orientation. “For all of these, there are laws to protect them against blatant discrimination,” says Hebl. There is zero tolerance and laws to protect citizens and social desirability that can be worked into a given situation.
“Much of that type of discrimination has been extinguished,” she says. “That which hasn’t been extinguished is interpersonal interactions.”
These micro-inequities are often more subtle and might seem innocuous, but are not innocuous at all, says Hebl. And are rampant in letter of recommendation when it comes to word choice. What is the landscape for minorities? Are they marginalized? Are they seen as less intelligent and less educated as a whole? One amplification builds on existing stereotypes. An interviewer might not see the Hispanic applicant as brilliant, but might say, ‘for a Hispanic, this applicant is smart.’ Stereotypes that can apply to Hispanic women are a double whammy of gender and ethnic discrimination.
Micro-inequities can be worse than formal discrimination. “Someone can say, ‘I will not hire a woman,’ and that is openly discriminatory,” says Hebl. “From the eyes of a female applicant, cognitive effort is needed to determine whether that person is always rude or ‘just rude to me because I’m a woman.’ Word choice can make you feel comfortable, like you’re going into a situation with a best friend – or stepping into fire with your worst enemy.”
If a woman does not know why she was passed over for a job when she was just as qualified as a male counterpart, word choices might be the culprit.
Interestingly, both men and women letter writers often are guilty of using communal words versus agentic words as they describe certain types of applicants. What was found is that even when men are described with communal words for stereotypical female jobs such as nurse, teacher or social worker, they, too, are overlooked. “Most are unaware of how this word choice can affect the evaluation of an applicant,” says Martin. She recommends that references truly think about their word choices in letters of recommendation. “How appropriate is this word in regard to employment? Are you describing the intellectual caliber of the applicant? Think twice before writing that letter.”
Be a Proactive Applicant
Being biased in writing letters of recommendation might not be intentional; sometimes it might just be a lack of awareness by a letter writer. They don’t write these marginal letters of recommendation as part of a hidden agenda.
“They are simply not aware of their biases in something as simple as word choice.”
“Pick people to write your letters who are supportive of you, people you trust,” says Hebl.
An applicant can give letter writers the material he or she wants to accentuate. Give them a list with your own choice words, letting them know that those are the qualities you would like them to stress if at all possible, suggests Hebl. Keep in mind what the criteria are for the job and what the most important aspect is of the academic position for which they are applying. Agentic qualities could include: can run a lab, has leadership qualities in a team scenario, makes informed decisions. Be aware of historically stereotypical “female” roles. For example, caring, sensitive, kind and nurturing are good for a nurse, but “makes good decisions under pressure” is better. What are the qualifications in terms of ability to do the job? Teaching, awards and published credits should be taken into account, as well as the letters.
Hebl and Martin continue to gather data for their next tier of analysis of letters of recommendation. They will focus on medical school faculty, which will provide a bigger sample of applicant letters.
Look at letters of recommendation in terms of decision making, says Martin. They have the power to make or break careers, garner promotions and recognize talent. Word choice can sway people to believe one perspective versus another.
“There is this social commentary many of us are not aware of,” says Martin. “I hope what people get out of this is the need to think about the subtle differences in gender expectations and how words can affect those expectations.”