Latinx students experience isolation at their universities

October 24, 2019 - Liz Schondelmayer

A recent study from Dr. Isabel Ayala (pictured left), an associate professor of Sociology in the Michigan State University College of Social Science, together with Chicano-Latino Studies and Sociology PhD student Christian Ramirez, has revealed that many Latinx students feel out of place in higher education.

Dr. Ayala, who directs the Chicano-Latino studies program at MSU, says that this isolation stems from coloniality, which refers to the legacy of European colonialism that impacts social institutions such as higher education.

“When we talk about coloniality, we are referring to the legacies of European colonialism on social structures, institutions and culture,” explains Dr. Ayala. “In the United States, this colonial legacy is observed in the normalization of knowledge, skills and experiences associated with white people.”

Dr. Ayala contends that coloniality affects Latinx students by presenting white people’s values, experiences and history as the “norm,” and Latinx students’ experiences and cultural background as an exception or even afterthought to that norm.

Latinx students’ experiences

According to Dr. Ayala, universities’ coloniality impacts how their Latinx students navigate academic and social spaces. Many students in her study reported that they feel isolated and undermined at their university. Others feel that, to belong, they must emphasize other parts of their identity before their ethnicity and/or heritage.

For example, a student included in Dr. Ayala’s study said, “There have been uncomfortable situations where I felt that I needed to almost conform in order to be something else... For a long time, it was hard for me, and I felt that I was trying too hard to be something that I wasn’t.”

Another participant said, “I feel that being a student is more important than my culture… Do I really want to be successful, put my name out there and network, and have a great résumé? Absolutely. That is the only way I know I can help my family out and that is how [my student identity] has come first, before my culture.”

Moving forward

Dr. Ayala notes that universities can take action to be more inclusive and supportive of Latinx students, their experiences and their heritages. The first step is to acknowledge and understand the impact coloniality has on the university’s academic and social culture.

“Awareness, however, is just the first step,” noted Dr. Ayala. “There needs to be a commitment to engage in an inclusive institutional transformation that acknowledges non-White cultures’ contributions to the United States. Institutional changes of this kind play a key role in Latinx students’ college attainment.”

Dr. Ayala hopes her study will highlight, celebrate and empower Latinx student’s resiliency, and encourage more awareness and inclusivity in university spaces so that Latinx receive the higher education experiences that they deserve.