While Latinos constitute 17.6 percent of the U.S. population, they make up just 4.1 percent of all faculty members at colleges and universities nationwide. To help narrow this gap, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) established a program aimed at increasing the number of Latino professors in the humanities.
[Above: Students at Florida International University (FIU) engage in the classroom. A Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), FIU is a participant in the Pathways to the Professoriate program.]
Pathways to the Professoriate, as the program is called, was launched in January 2016 with the help of a $5.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Over a period of five years, the program will prepare 90 students from Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) for PhD programs, as well as guide them through to completion of their degree. According to Director of the Center for MSIs Marybeth Gasman, PhD, another goal of the initiative is to help these individuals learn to navigate the higher education hiring process.
Gasman says 30 Latino fellows — all undergraduate juniors studying the humanities — have been identified thus far.The participating HSIs are Florida International University, the University of Texas at El Paso, and California State University, Northridge.
Fellows were chosen from a wide range of majors within the humanities, including English, film, philosophy, sociology, and art history. For the purpose of providing academic guidance, they are paired with mentors at their respective institutions, as well as with those at five partnering research universities: New York University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Pennsylvania; Northwestern University; and University of California, Davis. These institutions, Gasman says, were selected for their “considerable track record for graduating Latinos in PhD programs in the humanities.”
The purpose of the HSI mentor is to prepare students for graduate school, while mentors at the research universities provide them guidance once they enroll. “We want the fellows to be surrounded by mentoring and support across the board,” says Gasman.
As undergraduates, fellows begin collaborating with their HSI mentors during their junior year, after which they participate in an intensive summer session focused on writing and professional development. During their senior year, they learn from mentors what it takes to apply to graduate school, as well as conduct research projects focused on the humanities.
“It is incredibly important that these students get research experience,” Gasman says. “The more preparation they have, the less stress [they experience] in graduate school.”
During the spring semester of their senior year, fellows present key findings from their research at an academic gathering in Philadelphia consisting of faculty members and peers from the research universities. Because these projects come in all types and sizes, Gasman says they can’t be pinned down.
“Presenting original research is vital to [these students’] success in graduate school and beyond,” she says, adding that the Pathways program helps them stand out in the graduate school application process. “We try to make them airtight candidates, making sure their essays are well done, test scores are strong, [and that they] have great letters of recommendation and know the policies of each institution.”
Most fellows apply to the five partner research universities; however, they are also encouraged to reach out to other institutions to increase their chances of acceptance. Once enrolled in graduate school, they have the opportunity to engage in additional research projects with their new mentors.
Prior to the Pathways program, Gasman says, Latino scholars were often left to their own devices, forced to navigate the complex graduate school application process on their own, build their résumé, make connections, and determine what skills they needed to prepare for a career in academia and research.
Gasman — who has written about strategies MSIs can implement to ensure student success in her book Educating a Diverse Nation — says that several complex factors contribute to why many Latino scholars are shut out of academia. She attributes their low numbers, in part, to “a considerable amount of systematic racism” that occurs during the hiring process.
“Often when people want to hire faculty, they choose people just like them and don’t pick anyone that isn’t familiar,” she says, adding that Latinos are often viewed as outsiders and are thus overlooked as mentees as well. And mentorship, Gasman says, is a key factor in navigating the complex politics of collegiate hiring.
Pathways to the Professoriate is working to overcome these obstacles by providing both the academic and financial support these students need to become successful scholars. In addition to mentorship, they receive a $4,000 stipend during their junior and senior years and a $4,500 stipend during their first year in a PhD program.
Each participating HSI determines its own criteria for acceptance into the Pathways program, which usually include a high GPA, a passion for teaching, and an individual’s originality in his or her respective field.
At Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, the undergraduate student body is 65 percent Latino, while the faculty is 20 percent. Elizabeth Bejar, PhD, vice president for academic affairs at the university, says FIU was eager to see an increase in the number of Latino scholars advancing into faculty positions.
Ana Luszczynska, PhD, an associate professor of English at FIU and the program coordinator for Pathways, says the program offers the university’s 10 fellows a way to navigate the intricate and complex hiring process in higher education. She believes this aspect of the initiative is critical for most first-generation, Latino undergraduates.
FIU fellows meet with their on-campus mentor on a biweekly basis. Mentorship, Luszczynska says, is crucial because mentors “provide [their fellows] useful information, educate them about the field, and offer one-on-one advice.”
Many of the program’s mentors are Latino or from other minorities, and according to Gasman, this provides added benefits to the students. Research indicates that having mentors and mentees of the same race or ethnicity “is significant in that students perform better and have higher aspirations when they see people who look like them and have similar cultural [backgrounds],” she says.
Luszczynska believes the program’s focus on the humanities is also important. “The perspective [in the humanities] is overwhelmingly Eurocentric,” she says, “so minority voices and perspectives have been systematically left out.”
For Bejar, increasing the number of Latino faculty members needed an innovative, enterprising program like Pathways. “If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you continue to get what you’ve always gotten,” she says. “Clearly, when only 4 percent of faculty are Latino — less than one quarter of the [overall] Latino population — something has to change.”
Silvia Mazzula, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a Latina, has studied minority hiring issues. She attributes the paltry number of Latino faculty to issues around “access, sponsorship, mentorship, and gatekeepers,” referring to those who make hiring decisions. Yet Mazzula expects that the Pathways program will greatly affect Latinos’ representation in academia by providing these individuals with the same access to mentors as white candidates and by intensifying support from institutions. Securing the backing of leadership, she says, is crucial to increasing the number of Latino faculty members.
Mazzula expects that the Pathways program will greatly affect Latinos’ representation in academia by providing these individuals with the same access to mentors as white candidates and by intensifying support from institutions
Although the Mellon Foundation grant runs only five years, it has the potential to be renewed, and Gasman says the Center for MSIs is committed to “following [students] through the PhD program to conclusion” and will tap supplemental funding sources should fellows need additional support to gain employment.
She and her staff will begin evaluating the program after the third year of the grant to see how students are progressing and make improvements where necessary. While she understands that there are no guarantees that all Pathways fellows will be awarded faculty positions at the research universities or other institutions, she still has high hopes for the program. “We want to have a national impact,” Gasman says.
If it is successful, she believes the program could easily be replicated and used as a detailed road map for other Latino scholars to reach their professional goals.●
Gary Stern is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.