Fernando Rodriguez is a Ph.D student in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, and he teaches for the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies. He was one of two students who led keynote addresses during a Hiawatha Academies professional development event on October 14. Fernando has a lot in common with many our scholars and is an incredible role model for them.
He is also an incredible role model for our educators. He offered them some great advice: engage in meaningful self-reflection. “Without this reflection we unintentionally perpetuate the oppressive aspects of imposing White normative conceptualizations of success onto brown and black bodies,” Fernando said. “Our primary responsibility is not to impose our definition of success onto our students but rather to inspire ambition within each of them.”
Read the full text here:
Statistically speaking, I should not be here.
Our educational system is constructed within a racist society that perpetuates idealistic expectations of success imposed on children, youth, and adolescents who, simply put, live in a different world than that of the majority. What I know for sure is that statistically speaking, I should not be here. As a first-generation, Mexican-American gay man from a low-income background, born to parents who completed high school and some elementary school, I know I am the shining example of what an “at-risk” child represents, even today. If someone had told me years ago that one day I would be speaking in front of a room filled with educators as a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, my response would likely have been… What is a PhD? And what is Minnesota? In some ways, I’m still trying to figure this out!
My lens did not include a moment like this.
On the surface, you may hear my bio and automatically assume that I am successful and perhaps the exception to the rule. What you may not realize is that I move through my educational and professional journey, even in this moment, feeling like a failure, and I hold a deep sense of guilt and selfishness. Becoming an educated Latino, entering the academy, and paving a way primarily on my own has come at a high cost. I’m not at home. I’m still not in a financial position to support my mother, who has been with Walgreen’s now for over 25 years and would love to retire but can’t because the cycle of poverty continues to work against us. With my father now out of the picture, much is riding on me as the son, el hombre, the youngest of three, and first to complete a 4-year degree, to be her financial security. I share this with you, intentionally, because I believe it accurately reflects my lens as a child growing up along the U.S./Mexico border, a lens shaped by all of the pieces of my identity. My lens, back then, did not include a moment like this as even within the realm of possibility. I was expected to graduate from high school, maybe go to the local community college or university, get married, and get a job. This is what success meant to me back in El Paso, Texas.
Our challenge: hold two realities as true and important.
Moreover, academia has transformed me in ways that makes me unrecognizable to those closest to me. This language, the academic lingo, this world we call higher education, is not an experience I freely discuss among my family. In fact, I often find that I censor my words, diminish my work, and avoid giving too many details about my daily experiences so as not to out-speak my family or to avoid sounding too “white.”
The costs: leaving home, being away from my mother, my 8-year old niece, my siblings, and feeling completely disconnected from my blood, I must convince myself weekly, sometimes daily, that this must all be for something more meaningful than I can comprehend. All of these tradeoffs must one day enable me to give back to my community in El Paso, otherwise, what is this all for? This ideal, however, has been limited as a result of seeking this status as a “successful academic.”
As an educator, graduate student, and administrator, there is a fine balance that I, as much as each of you, must navigate in order to truly support students who possess marginalized identities and who must learn to exist in multiple worlds, from home-life, navigating poverty, navigating stigma, prejudice, the list goes on. The challenge for me, for you, for us, then, is to hold two realities as as true and important.
Life lessons and skills were not validated in the classroom.
First, there are benchmarks that define success within this oppressive educational system; standardized tests scores for example, continue to be held as the standard and further perpetuate the oppressive aspects of education. Tied to this is the ideology that your students’ education will continue outside of your classrooms. I can tell you from my own perspective that homework or reading time at home, and/or other traditional educational expectations you hope a child like me would receive in their household are fantasies. Instead, my continued education came in the form of prioritizing how to be self-sufficient, clean for myself, cook for myself and my siblings, and struggle with the reality that many times there would not food on the table. These experiences, life-lessons and skills, were not validated in the classroom environment but I can tell you that, in large part, they are the reason I have been able to reach this point in my educational and professional journey.
It was not enough to sit in a classroom with peers who looked like me.
Then there is the greater and more difficult responsibility we as educators must aspire to accomplish. We have a responsibility to push against the idealized conceptualizations of what success is, what it looks like, and who can attain it. In retrospect, I wish someone along my K-12 experience had intentionally helped me explore what it means to be a successful Mexican American; it was not enough to sit in a classroom with peers who looked like me, after all, most of my peers in my K-12 experience were also Mexican-American. I spent the first years of my higher education experience surrounded by white, upper-middle class students. Suddenly, my brown skin, bank account, and Mexican accent were on display. Instead of spending time engaged in the classroom, I spent my time and often STILL do spend my time negotiating the feeling of being the imposter or feeling as though I am in this seat for my white peers’ cultural competence and development. The same has been true throughout my all of my professional experiences.
Too much time wasted feeling disempowered.
What I realize now is that without a strong sense of my racial and ethnic identity it was impossible for me to see and understand the barriers in front of me. It was impossible to understand where I stood within this educational system. It was impossible to understand that power within this system was in fact not equally distributed. Figuratively speaking, this paralyzed me, and too much time was wasted feeling disempowered instead of spending that time focusing on how I was going to arm myself to push through.
Without first understanding your own positionality it is impossible to recognize where your students stand.
So, how can you begin to move toward a direction of racial and ethnic development for your students? This is done by intentionally incorporating self-reflection into your own professional and personal development; a process in which I truly believe we never arrive. Define for yourself what you value. What family means to you. What success looks like for you. What you most look forward to when the bell rings to head home after school lets out. What you most feel anxious about. Without first understanding your own positionality within the educational structure it is impossible to recognize where your students stand, and I would argue, without this reflection we unintentionally perpetuate the oppressive aspects of imposing White normative conceptualizations of success onto brown and black bodies.
Then, ask the same of your students. Embed these intentional reflection opportunities throughout their educational experience. Listen to their narratives and identify points of connection and points of departure from your own. Where do you stand in relation to their perspective? Where might they not see their own potential?
A student like me does not need to be saved.
Know that you can never know what my eyes have seen, and what my spirit has felt. Know that a student like me, in your classroom, does not need to be “saved.” It is not our responsibility as educators to do so. Only by incorporating opportunities for growth and understanding around cultural awareness and connection in your own life, outside of the classroom, and outside of the professional setting, will we be able to close the cultural gap that often separates student and teacher. Our primary responsibility is not to impose our definition of success onto our students but rather to inspire ambition within each of them.
In May of 2005, I sat among 8000 graduates on the main lawn of the University of Texas at Austin, and I’d like to close my remarks this morning with three pieces of advice our keynote speaker, Sara Martinez Tucker of Laredo, Texas, shared with us that evening. First, be true to yourself. Second, recognize the source of others’ ambition and inspire them when they need it. Third, know that if your cause is true, your work will never be done. Thank you very much and have a great networking day.