Tag Archives: mentoring

Challenging the Latina/o Achievement Gaps—Let’s Begin By Making School Relevant to Their Community, Their Culture and Their Lives

March 18, 2013

By Grace C. Huerta, Ph.D.

A 2013 study recently published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that reading scores among Latina/o middle-level students remain below the average of their white peers in such states as California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Texas and Washington. In fact, over the course of 30 years, Latina/o students in junior and senior high schools continue to see declines in academic achievement, standardized test scores, graduation rates and college attendance (Gándara, 2010).

What is this data really telling us? What is happening in our communities and public schools that keep this fast-growing minority group from closing the achievement gap and moving forward to college?

Undergraduate students from The Evergreen State College, sought to answer these questions as they conducted community-based interdisciplinary research in the town of Salish, Washington (a pseudonym) during the fall and winter of 2012-13. Our undergraduates, many of whom are bilingual, first generation minority students themselves, discovered that such questions are difficult to answer without understanding the larger context of a community.

Small Town, Big Changes
By visiting Salish’s city center, historical museum, industries, schools, tribal lands, churches, and health authority, undergraduates explored the history, culture, labor, and education in a Pacific Northwest town who has undergone demographic change—change that mirrors the ongoing struggles encountered by immigrants across America.

Salish’s economy was based on logging, shellfish harvesting and salmon fishing. These industries are now in decline due to international outsourcing, company restructuring, and the enforcement of tribal fishing treaties. Struggling against poverty, today Salish’s largest employers include the local casino and a subsidiary wood product company. Other seasonal industries have emerged, such as salal harvesting (floral greens), wreathe-making, oyster harvesting and tree planting, all of which draw a Mexican and Guatemalan labor force. These immigrants now have children attending the Salish public schools.

Learning A Community—Undergraduates at Work
Evergreen College students were eager to learn about Salish, a community they bypass on the way to weekends in Seattle or to the capital, Olympia. Given Salish’s invisibility, faculty identified this as an important site for a field-based study.

Using qualitative research methods, undergraduates analyzed historical documents, conducted observations, interviewed and videotaped immigrant advocates, educators, and Latina/o families and students. Evergreen students also tutored English language learners (ELLs), cooked meals for the homeless, supported a clothing bank, assisted in an adult literacy program and mentored alternative high school students.

The majority of our college students chose to mentor Latino/a and ELLs in four K-12 public schools. They volunteered at one dual language elementary school, a middle school, a junior high school and a comprehensive high school whose students included Mexican, Euro-Americans, Guatemalan and Native American students.

Undergraduates tutored elementary students who received content area instruction in Spanish and English. They worked with a faculty of elementary bilingual teachers who utilized student-centered and culturally relevant pedagogy. During their weekly school visits, Evergreen students observed a rich cross-cultural learning environment where languages, family traditions, histories and the arts held equal value along-side math, science, and state standards. By implementing a dual language program, these K-5 students were engaged by a curriculum and pedagogy that resonated with their lives (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011).

Our undergraduates also met elementary bilingual school staff who were concerned with issues central to the immigrant community. For example, school advocates, educators and immigration lawyers from Seattle organized a community workshop regarding “The Dream Act” and immigration policy in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Respectful of the families and their children’s needs, the workshop was presented and translated into three languages, Spanish, English and a Mayan dialect, Mam. At least 100 family and community members were in attendance at the elementary school. The undergraduates later recognized the importance of these collective educational efforts to support the concerns of the larger community.

Scratched Surfaces—Struggles at the Secondary Level
In contrast, our observations at the secondary school differed significantly from those at the elementary level. Gaining entrée into the predominately English-only, Salish High School was particularly challenging. Teachers explained they were too busy to accommodate our weekly visits. For those undergraduates who were able to observe ELL classrooms, they noted a predominant use of worksheets, homework assignments from other classes, with little culturally relevant content available to them. The teens often chatted amongst themselves, which later called into question the rigor of instruction they received. As our undergraduates collected data, it became apparent there were a number of variables that impacted ELL academic achievement in grades 8-12.

Figure 1.“The Dream Act” Community Information Meeting at Salish Elementary.

Figure 1.“The Dream Act” Community Information Meeting at Salish Elementary.

The college students noted how the popular media depicts minority students being saved by “supermen or women” who romantically buck the system in private or charter schools. And yet, our students reported in their interviews with faculty that they felt demoralized by the pressures they faced, such as the emphasis on standardized testing and the lack of resources. It was clear that the secondary ELL teachers had few opportunities for professional development and collaboration. Faculty isolation resulted in collateral damage where the teachers internalized these pressures, adopted low expectations, and essentialized ELLs as illiterate and incapable of any deep cognitive understanding. It was apparent to the Evergreen students that such cultural deficit thinking did little to help empower the high school students.

Our undergraduates also observed some educators who resisted external support, such as the tutoring or mentoring, fearing this would take time away from standardized test preparation. The introduction of culturally relevant pedagogy or dual language activities was rejected at the secondary level. Ironically, these were the same practices that proved to be successful at Salish’s dual language elementary school.

While secondary teachers emphasized content area instruction, our undergrads noted that the curriculum did not motivate ELLs. A common philosophical stance taken by educational administrators emphasized colorblindness. They were not interested in program models that affirmed diversity, such as through dual language classes, or the creation of supervised spaces for youth to develop a sense of belonging (Gándara, 2010; Slavin & Cheung, 2005).

Such initiatives were perceived to agitate students rather than empower them to critically think for themselves. When Evergreen students asked to take part in organizing a Latina/o cultural club, educators initially questioned why was there a need for such an organization? An administrator asked, “We don’t want to segregate students. Why couldn’t we have one big group that can get along?” At yet, it was at this time that our undergraduates dug in their heels, and became even more committed to attending after school mentoring sessions.

Over the course of a month, we saw the high school Latina/o Culture Club (a term generated and agreed upon by the youth) meetings increase from three students to five students, to 11 students, and to 15 students. Interestingly, some of the students who attended the club planning meetings were Euro-American youth who hold long-term cross-cultural friendships with their Latina/o peers. It was these same students who met while attending Salish’s dual language elementary school many years ago. A sense of school attachment and sense of belonging established through the extracurricular club seemed to lift student engagement. In fact, the teens were amazed to learn that our undergraduates attended a collage that was only 15-20 minutes away.

Figure 2. High school Latina/o Culture Club members enjoy some dulce while recollecting their days in a dual language elementary school.

Figure 2. High school Latina/o Culture Club members enjoy some dulce while recollecting their days in a dual language elementary school.

Meanwhile, without school funding, the club struggled to identify an adviser. As a result, the official status of the club remains uncertain. However, one science teacher visited a club meeting. She was visibly surprised to see sophomores, juniors, and seniors working side by side with college students, as they created art projects about their cultural backgrounds. One teen described how the club, with new friendships with the college students, shared laughter, conversation, and music and brought, “Relief from the stress of the day.”

Not a Panacea, But a Start
While our Evergreen students will continue to take part in the Latina/o club, as well as tutor in the dual language elementary school throughout the 2013 academic year, these initiatives alone are not a panacea for closing the achievement gap. But what we can say is there is a yearning, a need for connection to one another, to family, to culture. It is this lack of connection between communities and the institutional structures and practices of schooling which cause students to disengage from a system that often marginalizes them. The nurturing, affirming cultural practices evident in elementary settings are mostly absent from such as Salish High, whose families barely fit into the town’s history, culture, and fragmented economy.

Figure 3. Salish High School student works on his culture poster board with an undergraduate mentor from The Evergreen State College.

Figure 3. Salish High School student works on his culture poster board with an undergraduate mentor from The Evergreen State College.

It can be said through our initial fieldwork in the Salish schools that standardized tests scores just scratch the surface when addressing the educational inequities Latina/o students face. Similar outcomes are evident among secondary Latino/a students and ELLs nationwide as they experience inequitable access to core and advanced placement curriculum (Huerta, 2009). These students remain essentially parked in low-level classes, where a scripted and irrelevant curriculum are taught by a teacher workforce with low morale, with no opportunity for ongoing professional development and collaboration (Fry, 2004). Traditional high school program models, leaves little hope for disrupting the patterns of low academic achievement, graduation rates and college attendance among Latina/o students.

That said, our research does show how we can make some strides. When our undergraduates talked to Latina/o teenagers, they found that the youth wanted dual language instruction in their schools beyond the elementary level. The teens wanted a club to study culture and to learn about college. They were interested in the politics of “The Dream Act” and the possibilities for new immigration policies.

But space must be made within the community and schools for such engagement to take place. While the Salish community has taken steps in this direction, a systemic K-12 effort to disrupt what is not working in the public schools must be confronted. Collaboration with local advocates and mentors remains an approach that offers support to schools uncertain how to meet the needs of diverse communities such as Salish.


Brown-Jeffy, S. and Cooper, J. (2011). “Toward A Conceptual Framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: An Overview of The Conceptual and Theoretical Literature.” Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter, 65-84.

Fry, R. (2004). Latino Youth Finishing College: The Role of Selective Pathways. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available: http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=30

Gándara P. (2010). “The Latino Education Crisis.” Educational Leadership, 67, (5), 24-30.

Huerta, G. (2009). Educational Foundations: Diverse Histories, Diverse Perspectives. Kentucky: Wadsworth.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2013). Mega-States: An Analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States in the Nation.Washington D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education.

Slavin, R. and Cheung, A. (2005). “A Synthesis of Research on Language of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners.” Review of Educational Research, 75, 247–284.

Dr. Grace Huerta is a faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Previously, she was an Associate Professor at Utah State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Arizona State University and completed her undergraduate work at the University of Southern California. Her areas of research include multicultural education, qualitative research methodology and secondary ESL/bilingual education. She is the author of the book Educational Foundations; Diverse Histories, Diverse Perspectives.


Caty Escobar    April 6, 2013 at 6:54 PM

Great post! This really made me reflect on my own experiences in school and how I saw my community collaborate. I grew up in Maryland and in my elementary school there was a large Latino population. My mother felt very involved in my school life because there were interpreters available on-site, at PTA meetings, and during parent-teacher conferences. At times, the school would put together programs that targeted Latino families so that teachers could better understand their students’ family life and culture. I too had many resources available in elementary school that eventually vanished when I entered middle school and high school. My perspective on this poor transition is that because educators believe that a child’s early school years are the most important for development, more support should be provided during these years. Also, because there are less educators and counselors of an ethnic background in schools students’ opinions and voices are not heard. I believe change should occur within the educational system first to encourage multicultural discipline, bilingual education, and cultural services to students and parents. Your research shows that change is difficult when teachers are reluctant to cooperate and when resources are low. What these undergraduate students have done thus far is phenomenal and proof that mentoring is also needed in schools.

Dichos: Motivation for Grad Students

January 14, 2013

Photo by Sharyn Morrow (Flickr, 03/26/05)

Photo by Sharyn Morrow (Flickr, 03/26/05)

By Sara A. Ramírez and Profes

Today, the Mujeres Talk Collective brings together a series of dichos for graduate students as we kick off the year 2013, the winter quarter, and the spring semester. Because many of us do not have frequent access to Chicana camaraderie and mentorship and more of us cannot wait until the Summer Institute to solicit advice, I asked some professors who are MALCS members for their gut/heart-response to the following question:

In a few words, what advice can you give to MALCS graduate students as we resume our work this semester/quarter?

Below are their answers. May the words of these mujeres sabias, this chorus of fairy godmothers, enter our hearts and guide us as we continue on our journeys to do the work we have been called to do. And please, use the comments section of the blog to share dichos that have been helpful to you.

Querida/o [Insert your name here],

Keep from sabotaging yourself. We have to learn to recognize the “worm” of self-sabotage every time it attempts to invade our organism with its tactics and skills of sabotage. It may well have a symbolic relation to Gloria’s “serpents.” Or is it “maggots” I mean to call up? Among those “worms/maggots” is the feeling of incompetence which is our heritage, that is to say, as a colonized people we have always already been judged incompetent, and we become overwhelmed by the “proof” of history. Keep from sabotaging yourself.
Norma Alarcón, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

Make sure to make time for sleep and laughter. Both are good medicine for what ails you. I think of sleep as horizontal meditation, your mind and body enter a new state in which it can heal from the demanding often bruising world of academia. Sleep still helps me process readings and arguments. As for laughter, nothing beats a loud, open-mouthed, body shaking, roaring carcajada!
Lourdes Alberto, Assistant Professor, The University of Utah

My mom advised when I started first graduate school: Aprende todo lo que puedas. She didn’t mean just what was taught in school, I am convinced, but she was telling me to LEARN … and I have not stopped yet! Otra cosa que se me ocurre is to be patient and not think you are a failure if you don’t do EVERYTHING all at once. Be patient with yourself and acknowledge what an incredible accomplishment it is to be a Chicana/Latina in graduate school.
Norma E. Cantú, Professor Emeritus, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Find yourself a mentoring circle/support group—preferably one that includes good food!
Debra A. Castillo, Emerson Hinchliff Professor, Cornell University

There are always little rituals that I have before writing—I clean the house, feed the animals, light candles, clear the air. Sometimes it is a good thing to change the ritual, to change the hour of my writing, the directions, places, mix it up a little with poetry, fiction, a short sexy-funny-clever list of words to begin my writing day. These breaks in routine help me de-stress because if I am stressed, I cannot write.
Cindy Cruz, Assistant Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz

“Quien adelante no mira, atrás se queda.” Create a year-by-year plan for how you will complete the Ph.D.  Study the requirements of your program and map out your course loads, your exam schedule, dissertation preparation schedule and fieldwork time if required. If your program allows it, research classes in other units that you will want to take or professors in other Departments with whom you want to study. Plan how and when you will fulfill language requirement. If your Department offers workshops or orientations on preparing for comprehensives or writing the dissertation proposals, be sure to attend those. (In my graduate study these were organized and led by the graduate student organization in the Department and featured advanced students who discussed their own preparation strategies) If your Department doesn’t offer these, then work with peers to create them with Department help. Ask whether your university offers dissertation support writing groups, which are different than writing groups. In the former, students from across disciplines meet with a counselor as a group every few weeks to share challenges and keep on track. In the latter, peers share and critique each other’s work. Talk to your advisors about your plan every year and be sure to get their feedback on it.                                                                                                                               —Theresa Delgadillo, Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University

Don’t feel guilty saying no, and trust in your abilities.
Dora Ramírez-Dhoore, Associate Professor, Boise State University

Don’t compare yourself to other people. Remember you are on your own journey.
Elena Gutierrez, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

Contemplative practice is good, even deep breathing, even remembering to breathe!  Find your optimum writing time and be faithful to it, be loyal to yourself, to your obra—that is, you.
Inés Hernández-Avila, Professor, University of California, Davis

Mija, in all you do know what your spiritual anchor is and tend to it. It may come from your traditions, you may find it in community or perhaps you feel it when you are in nature. It is in this anchor that will always reflect back your greatness and your deep interconnectedness to la vida. The academic part is easy. You’re brilliant and you’ve been admitted, punto final. El camino es lo dificil. Cultura cura … however, spirituality is the preventative piece.   —Sandra Pacheco, Associate Professor, California Institute of Integral Studies

Trust your gut, your intuition, your own judgment; avoid anyone, situations, or theories and scholars that make you feel less, badly, disempowered.
Laura E. Pérez, Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley

As someone who was also a first generation grad student, it was imperative that I created a strong community of friends/colleagues and a structure of mentorship across cohorts of graduate students and faculty within my department. There is so much knowledge and experience that can be passed down to lessen the anxiety of embarking on such an enormous endeavor.
—Felicity Schaeffer-Grabiel, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz

Don’t over-do. A chronic thing that haunts me is over-doing. I think that it can be equally detrimental to do too much than to do too little. And for us chronic perfectionists, it can really be debilitating. Also, I’ll say yes to too many things and then land up not doing some very well and then punish myself for it. Not over-doing is about self-care.
—Patricia Trujillo, Assistant Professor and Interim Director of Equity and Diversity, Northern New Mexico College

¡Feliz 2013 y échenle ganas, mujeres!

Sara A. Ramírez is a doctoral candidate in the Ethnic Studies Graduate Program at the University of California, Berkeley. 


  1. Sandra D. Garza    January 14, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    This is fabulous! Thank you Sara and all the mujeres that contributed to this post. I’m sharing it on FB <3

  2. Annemarie Perez    January 14, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    Thank you so much for putting this up. It’s wonderful for all of us to read, graduate student or no.

  3. Brenda Sendejo    January 14, 2013 at 2:35 PM

    Thank you so much to Sara and the contributors for this blog post! I think this is amazing advice for graduate students. I am also grateful for these wonderful words of wisdom as a junior faculty member. They are inspirational and beautiful reminders of how to be, become, and stay healthy and grounded in mind, body, and spirit on our paths. Mil gracias!

  4. Jean Rockford Aguilar-Valdez    January 14, 2013 at 10:35 PM

    Muchisimas gracias for these little pearls of strength. I’ve been through a lot of pain in my doctoral program, and these words help me find survival and sustenance to carry me through.

  5. Li Yun Alvarado    January 16, 2013 at 5:10 PM

    Thank you so much for these! They’re fantastic.

  6. Angie Chabram, Professor, UC Davis    January 16, 2013 at 10:01 PM

    I just decided to forward my own pearl of wisdom:

    Watch out for the snakes. They come in all colors and genders. Don’t assume that the academy is your home or that your colleagues are all friends. Remember that you are at work. Yes academics “work.” Live your life to the fullest. Fight hard when you need to, then rest. While you may have comadres, it is you that must wage your fight con ganas y corazon. Be a pragmatist as well as an idealist!

  7. Sara Ramirez    January 16, 2013 at 10:08 PM

    I’m so happy these words could be useful to so many of us! Please, contact me at sara@malcs.org if there are any other stories you’d like to see posted for grad students!

  8. Claudia Serrato    January 29, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    Medicina all the way! Gracias! <3

  9. Noemi Martinez    February 3, 2013 at 12:17 AM

    Lovely, thank you.

On Doing Work that Matters and Sustaining Ourselves in the Interim

May 28, 2012


By Brenda Sendejo

It’s a week since the 2012 El Mundo Zurdo Conference at UTSA. I feel a rejuvenated sense of purpose about my work, my heart is full, and my mind and soul inspired. I sat at my desk working on an essay today, and as I did, I periodically glanced over at the brightly painted rock I got at the conference. I got the beautiful rocks with quotes by Gloria Anzaldúa for friends, and minutes before the conference ended decided to go ahead and get one for me. The lavender rock with the words of Gloria Anzaldúa, “Do Work that Matters” called out to me as the one I should keep (Zapotec curandera Doña Enriqueta Contreras once taught me that lavender is the color of healing). The rock serves as a reminder to me that I do the work that I do because I believe that it matters and because I hope that it makes a difference in the world. The rock is also a reminder to myself to stay on that path and focused on doing the work as a teacher and scholar. Because, while it’s a rewarding path and at times a healing path, it’s not an easy one. I reflect here on the conference, thinking about the stakes involved in doing work that matters and how we sustain each other and ourselves in the process.


At the opening plenary of the conference Northern New Mexico College President, Dr. Rusty Barceló discussed what I view as doing work that matters. She talked about working to diversify the academy as we make our way down our individual — and often lonely — paths at our perspective institutions of higher learning. We are often the only, or one of few women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ staff, faculty, or students “at the table,” whether in a meeting of college presidents, department meetings, diversity enrichment committees, or in our classes. Dr. Barceló talked about the meaning of diversity and instances where we might be “at the table” with regards to representation, but have no voice. Engaging head on with issues of diversity means more than increasing the number of faculty and students from underrepresented groups at our institutions. It’s about the inclusion of our voices and responding to our calls for equality, inclusion, and an end to institutional violence. It’s about working to ensure recognition for the diversity work we do in our teaching and research at tenure and promotion time, and it’s about helping to promote the idea that a real commitment to diversity — in perspectives, life experiences, and beliefs — must permeate through all facets of an institution.


Doing work that matters can be frustrating and draining. It requires opportunities for us to rejuvenate our spirits through community, at conferences such as the MALCS Summer Institute, SSGA and NACCS. In the interim between seeing our comadres and compadres whose support, encouragement, spirits, and intellect fill us, in between moments when students remind us that the struggles we faced and continue to face as women, people of color, and queer people in the academy are worth it, and in between the inspirational conversations with colleagues who “get it,” we need to cultivate strategies for sustaining ourselves, strategies for being in those spaces and doing work that matters. I would guess that tenured professors, junior faculty, community members, graduate students and undergraduates all experience those in between spaces. I’m fortunate in that I possess the resources to attend conferences, trips to Anzaldúa’s grave in Hargill, a cell phone to call my comadres from grad school when I need a little pick me up and reassurance. But what about when we don’t have those resources in place to lift our spirits? Where do we turn in the interim to help pick us up in the struggle to do work that matters? Where do those who don’t have access to conferences and comunidad nearby find fulfillment in moments of alienation, homophobia, sexism, racism, in our hometowns, universities, communities, familias? I write this for those who have been or are or will be in that in between space and don’t have those resources. I was there once, and I so I offer our community an invitation. It’s an invitation to share via this space, to share your virtual words of encouragement and consejos, strategies for how you sustain your mind, body, and spirit in the interim – between now and the next conference, or between now and any other moment that feeds you. And so I put this out to you. I ask you to respond to this blog entry with your strategies for continuing to hold on to that light from within. Some of us have the privilege to get to attend conferences. Others do not. Others are alone, sin comunidad, fighting the fight and I write this for you. There is a lot of healing that needs to happen, mentoring, guidance and this is just one small, humble attempt to see if we can work as the strong community we are to offer support to one another in this wonderful space that has been created.


Dr. Barceló offered a reminder that as we pursue our career and personal goals as we all do, that we keep this awareness about us; keep an eye towards working for inclusion and diverse ways of thinking and being; for inclusivity and creating change. While it’s not an easy place to be, perhaps we can locate allies and continue to use this and other spaces of community to remind us that we are not alone as we navigate nepantla towards the goal of shifting consciousness and conocimiento. It may feel like a lofty goal at times, but it is one in which I have much hope, in particular as I reflect back on Dr. Barceló’s talk, on the numerous fierce and stimulating presentations, performances, and experiences at the conference, and the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, constant reminders, like my lavender rock, to keep moving forward in doing the work that matters.

Brenda Sendejo is on the faculty of Southwestern University and an At-Large Representative of MALCS. 


  1. Mujeres Talk Moderator  June 2, 2012 at 5:59 AM

    Thanks Brenda for your blog essay. I’ve been thinking about your question in terms of the differing missions of MALCS, SSGA and NACCS. Whereas SSGA is all about examining Anzaldúan thought and practice at the conference and in publications, one of MALCS’s purposes is to support and sustain us both at the Summer Institute and in the interim so I appreciate your work in doing that in this forum.

  2. Bren  June 15, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    thank you so much for your comment. i agree that MALCS is an important space for sustaining ourselves, and as i’ve heard from a few people since this essay posted, there are many out there who are seeking out strategies for doing so. so i hope this is a conversation we can continue, both online and at the institute.

Remembering the Power and Satisfaction of Mentorship

January 23, 2012

by Ella Diaz

Mentorship, both the act of mentoring and being mentored, is a well-known practice amongst Chicana and Latina scholars, educators and activists. We know firsthand of its efficiency, and the deep sense of satisfaction that comes with offering and taking advice, of extending a hand in friendship and in solidarity with each other. Working against hyper-competitive workplaces, against the culture of silence to which we often conform in our universities and institutions, and against individualistic notions of success, mentorship is our intervention in capitalist structures and neo-colonialism.

I want to write about mentorship in my first blog for Mujeres Talk because it perfectly captures my experiences between 2010-2011 as a scholar and as a Chicana. Having graduated with my Ph.D. in 2010, and as an adjunct instructor, I entered a period of uncertainty. So many of us recent graduates enter this space—a disconnected zone where we are unsure of our next steps towards creating a career and a viable practice in our given field. The fact is, the times have changed, and with all signs pointing towards adjunct positions as permanent ones, academia needs new conversations and new professional strategies.

Photo by ASU Libraries

Photo by ASU Libraries

But, with this said, a fundamental dysfunction in academia persists, despite changes in the professional opportunities in our fields; that dysfunction is what I call the culture of silence in universities. No one tells you what the next steps are. There is no workshop, no final debriefing meeting in which the transition from graduate student, to ABD, then Assistant Professor is demystified. Failing to share our concerns, our uncertainty, our questions, is deeply alienating for us Chicanas and Latinas who often navigate terrains communally and in dialogue. Chains of migration, familial and social networks are not only a major part of our support systems and cultural capital; they are also integral to our epistemologies and research methods. So finding oneself in a void of silence in our doctorate programs and then in our professions can be doubly difficult for Chicana and Latina scholars and professionals.

As it has been said for three decades, this is why MALCS is invaluable. MALCS is single-handedly the most important mentoring organization for emerging and established Chicana and Latina scholars, institutional workers, and activists. I personally experienced the power and deep sense of satisfaction that comes with taking good advice and embracing hands extended to me over the last year. Here I offer my experiences with seeking and receiving mentorship in a series of tips and lessons learned. I am mostly offering my thoughts on how to be a good mentee.

A few months before graduating I had made the good decision to present at a Latina/o Literature and Culture Society meeting. I did so because I needed a project to carry me through completing my dissertation that, well, wasn’t my dissertation. I also noted who the scholars were who were sponsoring the meeting of the Society. Thus the first tip I can share with you about seeking mentorship is you must make an introduction with a possible mentor that showcases your work. In other words, networking is good but it only carries you so far: it’s not about talking about your work or alluding to what you do; it’s about showing what you do. So plan panel presentations around audiences. Be bold enough to invite a favorite or inspiring scholar to one of your presentations. Mentors need to see and hear your work because, ultimately, it’s a two-way street. Of course, a senior colleague and established professional will want to work with new talent; but we must remember that part of our feminist practice and cultural heritage is dialogue and collaboration. Therefore, a mentor seeks an intellectual / professional partnership.

My strategy to present my best work at the Latina/o Literature & Culture Meeting proved successful. Showing my work through a polished speech complemented by slideshow brought me two mentors who connected with my work and then connected me with other scholars who they felt I could forge meaningful partnerships. Literally, one of my new mentors recommended I contact another scholar and share my presentation notes. I did so the next day and was invited to the MALCS Article Workshop. I participated in this workshop and was contacted by the editor to develop my work quickly for publication. I dropped everything else I was working on and developed the work. My first scholarly length article was published in Chicana/Latina Studies this fall 2011.

The next tip, then, is to follow up on every single piece of advice or instruction given to you by your mentors. Mentors experience a deep sense of satisfaction when you take their advice, run with it, and create successful outcomes. This is their reward, their payment, for guiding your path. There is nothing really quite like having your words, thoughts, ideas honored by careful attention and good listening skills.

Following up on these two experiences, I shared my professional documents with my mentors: my CV, my letters of interest for positions, my teaching statements, etc. They, in turn, gave me careful edits and some even shared their own professional documents. I revised all of mine accordingly. I strongly believe that my newly developed documents catalyzed the job interviews I recently received.

Upon receiving my first real interview, I met with my mentors, I spoke with them over the phone, and I emailed. At times it was overwhelming to compile all of their specific and general advice; but I created a document and recorded all vocabularies, scenarios, and strategies. I kept talking with them right up until the very day of the interview. I have been invited for a campus visit. Now, I can’t  tell you what happens next because I post this before I leave for the visit; but I will tell you that, after reflecting on this whirlwind of a year, I realize how carefully it was orchestrated by me and my mentors. Those two weeks of conversation, of taking advice, of listening to phrasings, practicing new vocabulary, and heeding strategies for preparation for potential questions asked at a job interview—all of it has been a training ground; it was literally a two week professional development seminar led by some wise, savvy, and thoughtful women. Whether or not I receive the position is not important; the training I received is invaluable and will assist me indefinitely.

So the final tip for pursuing mentorship is to be honest with your mentors. Share with them your fears, what you perceive to be your weaknesses professionally and/or academically. There is always an answer for every question and a solution to every problem. Speak candidly so that they can help you overcome your professional fears and foster the professional confidence that will propel you to the next leg of your journey. When they offer solutions, or unfamiliar options, digest them and try them out.

In closing, I hope you find my thoughts on making the most out of being mentored useful. I look forward to my upcoming posts and hearing your thoughts about them. Wishing everyone a happy new year!

Ella Diaz is a Visiting Faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her Ph.D. in American Studies is from the College of William and Mary.


  1. Anonymous  January 26, 2012 at 12:37 AM
    I’m so glad you are posting your experiences and expertise, specially right now that I’m close to my own transition from grad school to professional practice, and I haven’t find and/or figure out a way to prepare myself for that. I’ll take in consideration all your suggestions and will do as best will help me. Thank you Ella. Best, Erika. 😀
  2. Anonymous  January 26, 2012 at 8:18 AM
    Hola Erika, I am glad my thoughts are timely for you. And next tip: JOIN MALCS! Here you will find other artists and scholars who work with artists, as well as opps to publish. Saludos, Ella
  3. Anonymous  January 31, 2012 at 8:09 PM
    right on target. Very helpful. Saludos, ella