The Power of the Latina Professor in the Classroom

Last spring, I taught an undergraduate Latinx Psychology course. Out of 22 students, 20 were Latinx and most were women. I have been teaching for 18 years and taught this course many times. But it had been a while since I last taught the course, and teaching it reminded me about how transformative and powerful this class is for both me and my students.

I work at a predominately White university. Although about a third of the students at DePaul University are first-generation college students and 41% are students of color, it may feel isolating for students who are marginalized in an undergraduate student body of almost 15,000. Only 6% of our full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty are Latinx and 3% are Latina women specifically. For many of my students, it was the first time they had a course with a Latina professor. Given the discrepancy between the diversity of the student body and the faculty, it is no surprise that our students don’t see themselves represented among their instructors. But DePaul isn’t unique in its lack of diversity among faculty. Nationwide, Latino men only represent 3% of full-time professors and Latina women represent 2%. This is a severe under-representation given that Latinxs currently make up 18% of the U.S. population.

In our class, we explored and discussed psychological research on topics such as stressors related to immigration, ethnic and racial identity, acculturation, gender, and discrimination towards and among Latinxs in the U.S. Not only did students critically analyze the reading assignments and what they were learning in the classroom, but it was also a safe space for students to discuss their own personal experience with these topics. For some, it was the first time that their experience was normalized in the college classroom and where they could discuss the diversity among the Latinx experience due to ethnicity, history, gender, race, generation, immigration status, religion, etc. Some students reported that the course empowered them because they felt that they belonged, that their experience and voice mattered, and that they, too, could make a difference in their community and society at large. These anecdotes are no surprise given the academic benefits of ethnic studies courses on students of color, especially Latinx students.

Research in education shows the importance of having diverse teachers and staff. For example, studies of high school and elementary school students with racially similar teachers were more likely to report that their teachers cared about them, were captivated by what they were learning, and were happy in the classroom. Racially similar teachers were also more likely to explain things differently if they noticed that their students did not understand the material, and they took the time to give feedback on students’ written work in order to help them improve. Although this research is on younger students, the lack of racial/ethnic diversity among college faculty begs for increased diversity so that undergraduate students of color could reap these benefits.

Undergraduate students of color deserve the chance to see themselves represented in the classroom by having diverse faculty who look like them and understand them. It is prudent that colleges and universities make efforts to recruit and retain diverse faculty. University leaders have recommended administrative structures focused on faculty recruitment, retention and development; financial incentives for hiring diverse faculty; and mentoring programs for faculty of color. It is time for universities and colleges to implement these strategies.

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Bernadette Sánchez, Ph.D., a Public Voices Fellow, is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at DePaul University. She conducts research on mentoring relationships and education among urban, low-income adolescents of color. She tweets from @BdetteSanchez.

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