4 Obstacles for Latinas in Higher Education – And Why It’s Time For a Change

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Going to college was not something I planned or even considered to be a possibility. With the hurdles I had to jump over, I was lucky to just graduate high school with slightly below average grades.

And graduating high school was a big deal in and of itself — especially considering that I was not only was I the first in my family to do so, but that my language barrier put me approximately two years behind my English speaking classmates.

While I struggled to maintain a passing grade in beginner’s math, my classmates were taking advanced placement courses and studying for the ACTs. To them, college was just a natural step in their journey. It was a step guided by the experience of their parents.

I, on the other hand, knew my family needed me now more than ever. My mother was on her own taking care of four children and I was old enough to start working and help out. Leaving my mom and siblings behind to pursue college felt like selfish abandonment.

Something changed for me junior year. I started really liking history and began doing really well in it. My history teacher recognized my potential and provided me with leadership and academic opportunities. It was the first time I imagined an alternative future for myself.

I realized I wanted more and that I had the potential to get it. So although college seemed like a selfish desire, I knew there was no going back.

I worked really hard my senior year to improve my grade point average and even took an advanced placement course. I studied for the ACTs and visited my guidance counselor to talk about potential college options. I really had no idea what I was doing or what my next step was, but I was lucky to have a supportive group of mentors who believed in me and guided me through each step.

Although I did better that year than I ever had in my entire academic history, it was not enough to undo the signs of struggle from my past. My GPA and ACT scores were not sufficient enough for the requirements of a four-year university. So I applied to some technical colleges.

The summer before I went of to technical college, I worked my butt off and saved enough money to pay for my first two semesters.

I spent a year at a technical college in a small town where I was more often than not the only non-white student in the classroom, and I cried myself to sleep every night for weeks and contemplated going home everyday.

Luckily, after a year I proved I was capable of being successful at the university level. So I transferred.

I thought the worst was behind me, but I was mistaken. I was not ready for University culture. I had no idea how to balance my social life with academic responsibility. I was trying to prove I fit in and so I partied too much and didn’t study enough.

As a virgin in college, the pressure of hookup culture was also confusing and I was completely unaware of how to navigate issues of sexuality.

Apart from cultural and social struggles, I also began to struggle academically — and I never reached out for support. I just didn’t think it would be a good look for me as a college student to seek help. I didn’t want people to know I was struggling because I didn’t want them to question my legitimacy as an educated person.

I was fortunate to find a group of Latinas I could identify with my second year when I joined a multicultural sorority.

These women understood my experiences because my experiences were theirs as well. They were my family away from home and the reason why I was able to graduate with a degree.

Unfortunately, not all Latinas pursuing higher educations are able to find a support system of like-minded women who understand what it took for them to get there.

Instead, many Latinas are faced with internal and external obstacles that prevent them from reaching their full potential. These are just some of those obstacles that impede the success of Latinas in higher education.

1. Cultural Gender Roles And Expectations

The Latinas I met and became friends with in college were unique in so many ways, but they did have one important thing in common: They were all devoted and committed to family, and their academic goals and aspirations were very much connected to family.

This bond between education and family is something I was personally familiar with. I understood that the success gained from our education was important for reasons beyond those of personal achievement. In our case, academic success meant attaining the skills necessary to improve the circumstances of our families.

This emphasis on the success of the family unit as a whole over personal achievement is known as Familismo and is very common in Latinx culture. This means decisions are made with family roles and expectations in mind, ensuring all decisions will benefit the whole.

These roles and expectations are gender specific and affect the decisions Latinas make about their future.

The role of women in Latinx culture is characterized by the term Marianismo. It means that Latinas are expected to be submissive, pure, and dependent. Although Latinas do hold a strong influence over domestic matters, they are respected for their feminine attributes.

Latinas who pursue higher education and work outside the home are deviating from their domestic roles as they become more independent. They risk being criticized by those within their culture who believe they are abandoning their cultural roles and disrupting the family dynamic.

This becomes an obstacle to academic achievement in higher education when Latina students attempt to balance family obligations and expectations with academic responsibilities.

While some Latinas are able to successfully involve their families in their educational experience by explaining their academic responsibilities and enlisting their support, others feel they must separate the two because their family obligations are not compatible with academic responsibilities.

This is known as The Good Daughter Dilemma.

This doesn’t mean Latinx family culture discourages education. In fact most Latinas grow up knowing education is the gateway to a brighter future.

However, there is a gap between the high value Latinx families place on education and the actual attainment of a higher education. For Latinas, this gap is explained partly by strict cultural obligations and gender expectations that often take precedence over higher education aspirations.

2. Language Barrier And The Application Process

After starting second grade in the United States, it took me two years to learn how to speak English. During those two years I was placed in English as a second language classes, which meant missing class time in subjects like math and science.

This had a long term affect on my academic success because instead of focusing on learning crucial material, I was learning a new language.

Reports show that half of Latinas enter school with English as a second language. The effects of this carry over to higher education because Latina students who enter schools having to learn English emerge having spent their academic careers struggling to catch up to their peers.

The effects of the language barrier is two-fold for first generation Latina students when it comes to the college application process.

Along with the frustration of navigating this new and complicated process, many first generation Latinas don’t have a family member they can go to for help who has experience or at least understands the language.

This means that many Latinas who have considered attending college may decide against it simply because they don’t understand the language or the application process and don’t know who to reach out to for help.

3. Culture Shock And Discrimination

I went to college worried that I wouldn’t be able to compete academically with other students. I worried my vocabulary was too small and that I didn’t know enough about politics to engage in intelligent debate.

What I came to realize was that I wasn’t competing against these people in academics as much as I was expected to compete with them socially.

It is common for Latina students to face a culture shock at the university level because they might find it difficult to identify with and relate to others based on privileges and life experiences.

While college is viewed as a place young people go to find themselves, develop their interests, and socialize, many Latina students view college as a ticket to improve circumstances for themselves and more importantly, for their families. This is based on both the emphasis on family discussed earlier and the fact that many Latinas come from low-income households.

Apart from culture shock, Latina students also face racial and gender discrimination.

They must constantly prove they deserve a place in higher education while continually being subjected to racial/ethnic stereotyping and low expectations about their abilities as women.

This leads to a potentially lack of active involvement in academics for fear of confirming gender and racial stereotypes. This is a common problem especially in smaller universities where the population of diverse students is scarce and there are limited resources focusing on issues of discrimination.

Without these resources and without organizations that cater to the needs of diverse communities, dealing with cultural differences and discrimination can become unbearable and cause Latina students to become disillusioned with the college experience.

4. Socioeconomic Inequality And Access To Healthcare

On multiple occasions I found myself trying to convince one of my Latina friends not to drop out of school. Their reasons were often related to money. Either they could not afford another academic semester or they could not afford the rent for another month.

Most Latina students come from low-income households and can’t depend on family to help with college expenses. Even if they receive financial aid and scholarships, they must also cover the cost of living away from home.

Latina immigrants face further financial obstacles when forced to pay out of state tuition. Those who can’t receive financial aid based on immigration status or don’t get enough aid to cover college expenses end up working at least one job outside of academic responsibilities.

This makes the social interactions so common to university culture difficult and means Latina students are likely to spend less time studying.

Although these effects are serious, the more damaging problems caused by socioeconomic inequality relate to access to healthcare and sex education.

Latinas are twice as likely to become pregnant as teens. This is due to a lack of adequate sex education and quality contraceptive services available to low-income Latinas. Often, these women are products of teen pregnancy themselves and continue the cycle.

Because cultural views discourage abortion, Latina teen mothers are more likely to go through with their pregnancies. Childcare costs then lead to fewer Latina mothers pursuing higher education and increased difficulty in attaining a degree for those that do.

5. Mental Health Risks

Having struggled as much as I did and still being able to go to college was a bittersweet accomplishment for me. I knew I was lucky to make it as far as I had, but I felt guilty none of my siblings made it as far.

After all, the only difference in our experiences was that I was fortunate to have mentors who pushed me forward even when I didn’t think I had it in me to continue.

Survivor guilt is common among Latina students who go on to higher education, but it’s not something that’s often talked about.

As they leave their families behind to pursue goals their parents could only dream of, Latina students tend to feel guilty for rising above their circumstances alone. The psychological effects of this can impact academic success when Latina students feel they don’t deserve the opportunities they receive.

Other mental stressors include depression stemming from the struggle to assimilate and meet expectations of two separate identities. There is a cultural conflict between who they are expected to be as students and who they are expected to be as members of a separate racial/ethnic culture.

The struggle to meet conflicting expectations between these two cultures can make finding true self-identity confusing and exhausting.

The struggle to find true self-identity means Latina students may find themselves resisting parental authority and cultural family demands, which often leads to isolation and a loss of support from family.

Although Latina students report higher rates of depression and psychological stress than non-Latina students, they are less likely to reach out for help. One reason for this is lack of mental health resources that are racially/ethnically literate.

Latinas might choose not to reach out for help because they fear not being understood. All of these mental health risks result in lower grades and higher drop-out rates.

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With all of these obstacles, it’s understandable why for some Latinas higher education is not something to look forward to. Even if they manage to overcome these struggles and graduate with a degree, it doesn’t end there.

Latina graduates also face gender and racial bias when entering the workforce and isolation if they choose to go on to graduate school.

What this means to me as I prepare for graduate school is that I will be entering unknown territory — territory traveled by less than 7% of Latinx students.

I am lucky to have a chance to increase the wealth of knowledge about latinx culture and the struggles of Latinas in particular. Although I know this will not be a simple task, it is crucial for increased representation of Latinas in academia.

It is a sad truth that as a society we are missing out on a wide range of abilities and potential contributions, but it is about time we changed that.

It is time for Latinas to be represented and acknowledged for their talents and for society to work towards the recruitment and retention of these future leaders with so much unrecognized potential.

Katherine Garcia is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a recent college graduate with a BA in Radio, TV, Film and soon to be graduate school student pursuing a Masters in Women and Gender Studies. She is passionate about LGBTQIA+ rights, domestic violence advocacy, Latinx issues, and mental health awareness, as well as 80s hair metal, used book stores, astrology, and chocolate. You can follow her on Twitter @TheLazyVegan1.