From Teaching to Researching Latino Pathways to College

Teach For America alumna Sarah Ovink was inspired by her days as a middle school teacher to conduct research on pinpointing solutions for Latinos in their journeys toward earning college diplomas.


Monday, August 3, 2015

I decided to pursue an academic research career because I do not know what became of Jorge*.

Let me back up. I joined Teach For America in 2000 because I wanted to help kids like Jorge, a U.S.-born, bilingual Spanish speaker who entered my Oakland classroom unable to recognize all the letters of the alphabet. I was a fluent Spanish speaker myself, and I trained as a kindergarten teacher at summer institute in preparation for a similar placement in the Bay Area. In one of those placement quirks that makes for a funny story later, I was assigned to teach seventh-grade English and history—in English.

So, when 12-year-old Jorge walked into my seventh-grade classroom, I immediately began trying to get him help. Of course, I had 32 other students per class that needed help, but Jorge’s case was extreme. Moreover, he was a sweet kid. He was polite, soft-spoken, was friendly with everyone, and never used his bathroom passes. His parents worked long hours and were happy that I was taking an interest. I feared the day when Jorge’s sweetness would turn sour, when his smiles would be replaced by resigned disappointment. I feared Jorge was headed for early dropout.


Sarah Ovink during her Teach For America corps member days in The Bay Area.
Sarah Ovink (The Bay Area '00) was inspired by her time as a teacher to research college pathways for Latinos.


The reading specialist gave me alphabet flashcards when all of my assessment attempts—using sixth-, then third-, then first-grade texts—were failures. When I realized the full extent of his need I was barely able to dismiss Jorge before breaking down in tears.

The next few months saw me fail repeatedly at getting help. The special education department was swamped (and presumed that his problem was being an English-language learner, despite my insistence that he was U.S.-born); his parents had no resources; the reading specialist could meet with him once a week and I could convince him to come two days per week after school, but progress with that level of help was excruciatingly slow.

By the end of the year, Jorge could read a little. He was ultimately promoted to the eighth grade, and unfortunately, with a new group of new students in similar predicaments the following year, I was able to visit with him only once after he left my class. His smile was still the same.

But I don't know what became of Jorge. I don't know how he felt about the help I tried to offer, or how it felt to be a kid who had fallen through the cracks. And so my dissertation research was an attempt to tap into some stories that I could follow over time, to see—as much as we ever can—how it all came out in the end.


Sarah Ovink during her Teach For America corps member days in The Bay Area.
Ovink during her middle school teaching days in Oakland. 


My Teach For America experience was instrumental in my subsequent work as a graduate student in sociology at the University of California-Davis. I had observed unusual cases like Jorge, but also some emerging educational trends: girls outperforming boys, rising Latino/a populations, and intersectional effects that defied the expectations of statistical models.

Much academic research, in part because of the limits of data and modeling, assumes a "universal" female, Black, or Latino experience by "controlling" for gender, race, or ethnicity without considering identities that lie at the intersection of these categories. My dissertation drew from my still ongoing study of how college pathways are affected by life at such intersections.

I recruited 50 Latino/a college aspirants as respondents. These 23 men and 27 women were high school seniors in 2007-2008, and all of them aimed to complete college. Using in-depth interviews at three time-points between 2007-2009, with follow-ups in 2012 and 2015, I traced their post-high-school journeys. This work has resulted in articles published in the journals Gender & Society and Social Science Research (you can read a summary of the former here, and more about my methods here), and a book under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, to be published in 2016.


Teach For America alum Sarah Ovink was inspired by her teaching days to research college pathways for Latinos.
Many students Ovink interviewed entered a "limbo" between part-time employment and college.


These numbers are telling when considering the other data that has been collected recently. In 2013, the Pew Hispanic Research Center reported that, for the first time, 69 percent of Hispanic high school students expected to attend college, surpassing white students (at 67 percent).

While on balance these changes are positive, we still have much work to do to meet the challenges facing low-income and underrepresented college aspirants. Amid increased economic insecurity, high school counselors stretched thin, and rapidly increasing college tuition, many of the students I interviewed entered a limbo of part-time employment and part-time college. A few managed the "classic" college journey of living in a dorm and attending classes full time.

However, many more expressed dissatisfaction with their stop-and-start progress. My book highlights some pragmatic solutions, given the current political and economic landscape, that would help students get through the college obstacle course more quickly. Promising avenues include the new Transfer Pathways created by the University of California system, and attempts to create viable career pathways in growing industries that do not require a B.A. As I continue to follow up with respondents, I will report back with how such efforts might pan out, and areas where we still have more work to do.

*Jorge is a pseudonym to protect the student's identity.


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