Faculty Grant: Assessing the experiences of Latino/a students at UO

Reforzando las Redes de Apoyo para los Estudiantes Latin@s de la Universidad de Oregon Project

by Angel Dorantes, Claudia Holguín Mendoza, Audrey Lucero, & Luz Romero Montaño

In 2014 we received a CLLAS grant to examine the experiences of self-identified Latin@ undergraduates at the University of Oregon. In particular, we were interested in knowing more about how these students perceive and negotiate the academic and sociocultural expectations of a flagship state university. In addition, we wanted to gather information that would be useful to administrators as they continue to improve the recruitment and retention of Latin@ students.

The idea for this project was born at a meeting of the Latin@ Strategy Group last fall. The Latin@ Strategy Group (LSG) is an emerging alliance of faculty, staff, students, and community members collaborating to improve educational access and equity among Latin@ students at UO and in the local area. The LSG seeks to make our mentoring and advocacy work for and with Latin@ students visible to the wider university community, to coordinate with networks of support already in place, and to advocate for the expansion of resources in accordance with increasing Latin@ student enrollments.

In the course of the LSG discussion about the experiences and needs of Latin@ students, we realized that we didn’t have any actual data on what those were. Rather, we were relying on anecdotal evidence and our own perceptions of the Latin@ student experience on campus. We realized that these perceptions may or may not align with what students actually want and need in terms of services and support.

In order to address this issue, the four of us developed a comprehensive Qualtrics survey addressing a broad range of issues. A literature review highlighted four areas likely to influence Latin@ students’ experiences in college: personal factors (like academic self-concept and financial resources), environmental factors (such as the presence of an ethnic community or a hostile racial climate), involvement factors (such as faculty mentorship and involvement in clubs), and sociocultural factors (such as community orientation and evolving identity development). We sent the survey electronically to all self-identified Latin@ undergraduates at UO—a total of about 1,700 students. Students could complete the survey in either Spanish or English.

To date we have received over 100 completed surveys, primarily in English. We also invited a small number of those who completed the survey to participate in a private semi-structured qualitative interview with one of us. The questions we asked during interviews were designed to provide more depth to the survey answers, which were mostly 5 point likert-type items (strongly disagree to strongly agree). So far five qualitative interviews have been conducted.

Although we are still early in the data analysis phase, we have been able to identify general barriers facing Latin@ students as well as the negotiation strategies they employ to be successful. Within this frame, three main themes have begun to emerge. First, many students felt that they did not know enough about support services available to them on campus. They reported receiving ample information about admission requirements, academic programs, and financial aid. However, some reported having received poor advising or not being able to access services due to a lack of information. This is an ongoing concern for the LSG, since we want to ensure access to the many resources available on campus.

Second, many students have experienced a sense of isolation and lack of connection to the campus community as a member of an underrepresented group. In particular, they identified the need for more inclusive cultural groups at UO. At present, their only options for Latin@-focused groups are MEChA or Mujeres. Both groups are overtly activist in nature, and not all college-aged Latin@ students are comfortable with that kind of activist agenda. This suggests a need for more diverse groups that serve different student engagement goals, such as career development, cultural celebration, leadership skills, etc.

Third, in general students felt that they had good relationships with some faculty and staff. However, they also reported negative experiences with other faculty and staff, especially advisors who they felt did not understand their specific needs as culturally and linguistically diverse students. This finding suggests a need to build capacity among faculty and staff university-wide so that these students can get access to information and support from many places, instead of relying on a few known supportive people.

Our work on this project continues, and we look forward to sharing our final findings with university administrators to help improve the UO experience for the growing population of Latin@ students.

—Angel Dorantes, doctoral student in the Critical and Sociocultural Studies in Education Program. Claudia Holguín Mendoza, assistant professor of Spanish linguistics; director, Spanish Heritage Language Program, Department of Romance Languages. Audrey Lucero, assistant professor of language and literacy education, College of Education.  Luz Romero Montaño, doctoral candidate in the Department of Romance Languages.