By: Bernadine Hernandez, a native New Mexican who is working on a PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of California, San Diego
When Professor Aide Acosta left school at the age of 16 to work in the service industry, she soon realized the lack of opportunities and possibilities afforded to her and her community. She returned to school and began to realize a much different yet difficult task at hand, higher education. Through the pedagogical elitisms, isolation, inequalities, and alienation she received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now a Visiting Assistant Professor in American and Latino Studies at Indiana University.
Professor Paloma Martinez-Cruz juggled being a single mother and a graduate student while working on her PhD at Columbia University. Striking a balance between career, culture, and womanhood in higher education were all things Professor Martinez-Cruz had to learn how to stabilize as a Chicana in the academy. As an Assistant Professor of Spanish at North Central College, she is not done balancing.
We all face challenges. But for Latinas and Chicanas in higher education and throughout the academy, the challenges come ten-fold. This is no great mystery. Amongst the many numerous nuanced challenges Latinas and Chicanas face alienation, inequality, culture, family, academic unpreparedness, institutional elitism, and sexism are just a few.
In fact, data from the U.S Department of Education shows that in 2009, Hispanic women held 4.2 percent of all full-time faculty positions while white women held 75.5 percent of all women faculty positions within the institution.
What do these statistics mean? The statistics remind us that being a woman of color in higher education can be trying, but not unmanageable. While the numbers look grim, we need to think about the power behind these numbers. Latinas and Chicanas in higher education are a recent phenomenon and while these women face challenges head-on for better opportunities, many face the challenges of higher education to get to the core of social issues that plague the women, men, and children in their communities. Latinas and Chicanas are breaking into educational systems that have always lacked inclusivity and are creating alternative epistemologies, experiences and knowledge. We are becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Those who decide to go into higher education many times walk the uneven path alone, with cultural and familial pressures always present. “Since I reside almost 2,000 miles away from my family, I have had the opportunity to have a “separate life” that has been primarily focused on my academic career. For me, this has been the biggest price of a PhD”, says Professor Acosta. Treading the path of higher education can be a lonely and uphill battle that requires a clear amount of dedication and perseverance. I have seen my colleagues hospitalized, stricken with debilitating anxiety, and fraught with an unhealthy competitive spirit, but as Professor Martinez-Cruz reminds us, “There are no burdens in higher education that [are not] a privilege and an honor to bear”. She states we are ambassador for a very misunderstood community. There are so many people barred from higher education and bearing this privilege should come without question. We are fighting for a much larger systematic change, not just for our own presence within the academy.
Anita Huziar-Hernandez, graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, in Literature and my colleague has reminded me time and time again that we need to stick together. Build community inside and out of the academy. And every chance you get, “Honor your intelligence,” says Martinez -Cruz. “Take yourself seriously as a thinker. Learn your intellectual lineage. Create boundaries so that your family and friends also learn to respect the work of thinking and feeling. When you feel isolated to the point of insanity, know that you are not alone. You are turning the cosmic wheel for us all. Leaders are always alone. Embrace this fact as a warrior. Your commitment to knowing liberates a continent”.