How do we, as professors, create spaces that are conducive to learning for all of our students, particularly groups of students whom our universities were not created to serve?
As a first-generation Latinx student, I began my college career with little to no knowledge of how institutions of higher education function. I struggled to find my place at universities unprepared to effectively educate students like me. Having now navigated higher education institutions for almost two decades as a student and an educator -- I’ve taught at three predominantly white institutions and am currently an assistant professor at a Hispanic-serving institution -- I’ve developed strategies to help first-generation Latinx students understand that the classroom is as much theirs as it is anyone else’s.
Once students are able to claim the classroom, they are more likely to consider themselves bearers of knowledge and contribute to class discussions. While colleges and universities can and should develop broader institutional strategies to ensure the success of first-generation students, individual professors can use the following ones to teach first-generation Latinx students effectively.
First, and perhaps most important, we must learn our students’ names, as well as their preferred pronouns, and pronounce them correctly. Rita Kohli and Daniel G. Solórzano call the mispronunciation of student names by teachers a racial microaggression and argue that such acts “support a racial and cultural hierarchy of minority inferiority.” Far from being a simple mistake made by educators, this type of racial microaggression works in tandem with a larger oppressive system that suggests to students that their identity, their culture and their origins lie outside the dominant culture. To mispronounce someone’s name or use the wrong pronouns dishonors their identity.
Thus, at the beginning of the semester, I have students fill out a questionnaire in which they write the phonetic pronunciation of their name and include their chosen pronouns. Some students don’t understand why I ask them about pronouns, so I take a minute to explain the importance of using appropriate pronouns in identifying a person. In high-enrollment classrooms, professors can use name tents to identify students.
Second, to engender a sense of belonging in the class, I share with them my own experiences as a first-generation college student from an immigrant, working-class family. I tell them that I was frightened as a student when I met with my mostly white male professors. And I tell them that my reaction was warranted -- I had never met a professor before going to college, as my community consisted mainly of working-class immigrants.
It is important for professors who don’t necessarily share the experiences of first-generation Latinx students to publicly acknowledge in class the distinct struggles this student demographic experiences. I graduated from college without having ever heard the designation “first-generation student.” By simply mentioning the designation in class, professors can help students begin to understand their distinctive status as first-generation Latinx students. Professors can also encourage them to make connections with resources available at the university specifically for first-generation Latinx students. Also, all professors can offer to meet students in groups of two to three people if students don’t feel comfortable meeting one on one. At times, students ask to meet with me with their parents. (They have signed relevant forms to ensure that FERPA laws are not being violated.) I welcome such meetings, as it allows me to get to know the student better.
Also, I am fully aware that first-generation Latinx students have many needs. I take time in my classes to share information with my students about the resources our university has to offer. (I also share such information on the syllabus.) Many times first-gen Latinx students are simply unaware of the kinds of help the university provides -- from individual tutoring to help landing a job. In addition, because many of my students come from low-income families, I make textbooks available for students to borrow if they can’t afford to purchase them. I also don’t require them to buy the most up-to-date textbooks, as the old versions are often not that different from the new ones.
Furthermore, I am intentional about lecturing in ways that all students understand. I use synonyms for words that I think some students may not know. I was raised in a Spanish-speaking home, so my English vocabulary was not as advanced as other students’ when I arrived at college. For example, I did not realize that “thesis” was another word for “argument” until late in my undergraduate career. A student may be unable to follow an entire lecture because they do not understand the definition of just one word. The use of synonyms resolves this issue.
It’s also important to articulate important information in different ways lots of times. Many times, textbooks offer explanations that are difficult for students to understand. I help my students grasp concepts by repeating information through the use of stories found in comics, films, documentaries and other sources. If an article is particularly difficult, I provide the general background and explain key terms and concepts before I assign students the material. This strategy makes challenging articles more accessible.
As an undergraduate, I also experienced test anxiety, especially during the first test of the semester, which always ended up being my lowest test grade. To help alleviate test anxiety, I show students sample questions before their first exam.
Additionally, from the first day of class, I explain to my students (and include in my syllabus) that my classroom is a safe space. Trust is essential for learning in the classroom. Most students will not learn from a professor whom they cannot trust. I let them know who I am. I speak Spanglish at times, and I translate when I do. To catch their attention, I tell them about my favorite place to eat Mexican foods like tacos de tripas or mangonadas. I immediately connect with my students -- they smile because they see their culture valued in the classroom.
Furthermore -- and this strategy is crucial -- I decolonize my syllabus. I center on indigenous, black and Mexican American histories when teaching about the federal government, and I assign readings on political actors and history of our region, the Southwest.
Finally, I love my students. I am honored to teach students who have overcome obstacle after obstacle and yet come to class ready and excited to learn at a university in the borderlands, home to many of them. I identify students with whom I’ve made a special connection and seek them out after the semester is over. I smile at them often. I crack jokes. I affirm the life experiences of my students -- my students are brilliant.