Sí Se Puede: Why Diversity Matters

SUMR Blog

Sí Se Puede: Why Diversity Matters

Language Barriers in a Country Where 21% of All Public School Students are Hispanic

As part of the highly competitive Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program I attend various seminars throughout the school year. One of the recent topics was on the importance of increasing diversity in the sciences. I remember our program director saying, “Look around you guys, this will probably be one the most diverse groups you will be in from now on. Don’t be surprised on your first day of graduate school when everybody in your labs, professors, and mentors don’t look like you.” He told us stories, including a former MARC scholar’s experience of being stopped by security, on multiple occasions, asking him for an ID badge while walking home from lab at midnight. At that moment I realized that currently there is a significant lack of diversity in academia.

Latinos now constitute the largest minority group in the United States and the fastest growing segment of its school age population. From fall 2002 to fall 2012, the number of Hispanic students enrolled increased from 8.6 million to 12.1 million, and their share of public school enrollment increased from 18 to 24 percent The number of Hispanic public school students is projected to increase from 12.5 million in 2013 to 15.5 million in 2024 and to represent 29 percent of total enrollment in 2024. Yet, in comparison to White and Black ethnic groups, Latinos aged 25- 29 years of age have the lowest bachelors degree completion rate. If Latinos make up a large portion of school aged children, why aren’t we finishing or at least attempting college?  

As a SUMR scholar at the University of Pennsylvania this summer, I attended the AcademyHealth Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After a morning of wonderful talks I walked back to the hotel to find our housekeeper inside. We quickly began to chat in Spanish and I learned that she is 20 years old and is from Ecuador. After a while, she opened up to me and told me that she migrated to the U.S. after finishing high school in Ecuador to reunite with her parents who have lived in Minnesota for 8 years. Coming here, she confessed that she had imagined opportunity for herself; she wants to thrive, she has the passion, and she has all the necessary motivation to become a nurse. I asked her what was holding her back. She replied that neither she nor her parents speak or read English, and that she had no way of finding the resources needed to even begin thinking of a career or education here. Working 40+ hours a week, she provides the only income coming into her household. Other than her coworkers, who are in the same situation as she is, she has no friends and no other help. She says she feels very alone, depressed, helpless and isolated from her dreams.

The young woman in Minnesota sadly isn’t the only one feeling segregated. Across the country, 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white. This issue raises concerns that when these children are segregated they may fall victim to discrimination or biases. It’s possible that, due to segregation, these children aren’t exposed to others who have aspirations or have gone to college. Figure 1 shows that 40% of Latina mothers have less than a high school education. The disparity starts with the families of these segregated children: without examples at home or at school, students may never develop the necessary knowledge or motivation to even think about college as an option.

Figure 1.

The stories and statistics are frightening, and this is why diversity matters. Programs designed to recruit minority students into higher education are essential because they offer resources to students that may have not been accessible to them before. If we follow our journeys and thrive to accomplish our dreams we can end this pattern. Every little bit counts and matters. As I was writing this blog post, my supervisor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia asked me for my opinion on something. She is currently translating a website that is viewed by many families and children across the country, and being the only Latina in my entire department, I agreed to help. She asked me how I felt about the phrase “1 million of the patients that end up in ERs in the United States are Hispanic.” I told her I felt more comfortable if it would say, “1 million of the patients that end up in ERs in the United States self identify as Hispanic.” She agreed and added that little piece into the frequently viewed website. Small changes go a long way, sí se puede!