By Samuel Ocasio Jr. | Guest Writer
Samuel Ocasio Jr. is a proud and determined Puerto Rican and former New Yorker now residing in New Jersey. He graduated with an M.A. in Sociology & Social Justice and now works as an adjunct professor and instructor at two schools. He also serves as a campus minister volunteering with community college students for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
My love for sociology and Latin American studies began during an introductory college class when I had a revelation of the culture that I knew was always part of me but wasn’t always shown or taught. On top of this, I felt sociology was a world in which both my Latino and American perspectives were unique and needed, especially in times of racial reckoning.
In my college years, I fell heavily in love with all things Latino and found my Latinidad. It is a big part of why I now identify 100% with being Puerto Rican and Latino. The key was having professors that knew the culture and understood my life experience. This made each course even more worthwhile and my educational experience all the more meaningful.
The Facts: 2-4 Year Degrees
Overall, we see a lack of Latinos in American higher education. Interestingly, Latino students have increased in 2-year schools. While attendance has increased significantly in the past two decades, Latinos are still underrepresented in 4-year degree programs, with the University of California Class of 2024 serving as a rare and exemplary exception.
Certain experts have proposed plans to increase Latino participation in higher education, although the impacts of COVID-19 introduce new factors particularly for working class students.
Isolation at the Graduate Level
In the meanwhile, however, my transition to graduate school was difficult. Not only were Latinos largely unrepresented at the school, but I was also the only Latino in a Sociology & Social Justice master’s program. The Latinos I did see often dropped out or decided that pursuing more education was too much.
There aren’t many Latinos in the graduate level. Representation among graduate faculty also has an impact on students’ experience and decisions. I was blessed that two professors encouraged me to attend graduate school.
I felt isolated, partly due to working through graduate school since I didn’t want to add more debt into my life. (Inside Higher Ed shares more about the nuances of Latino college students and their jobs.)
The dearth of Latino writers and thinkers in my coursework made me believe I had something special to offer, however. I have the opportunity to advocate and pave a way for other marginal voices. Mentors like my Puerto Rican advisor provided welcome support in getting through my program. When I graduated, I felt a sense of mission and purpose to continue the work of bringing Latinidad into sociology.
This calling was affirmed when I landed my first job as an adjunct professor recently. Students were shocked not just by my youth but because there was an actual Latino professor. We Latino educators are needed!
Less than 5% of American professors are Hispanic. According to the National Center for Education Statistics 2020 data, 3% are full-time faculty: 2% are male and 1% are female. This means Latino educators are often alone among their faculty and colleagues.
Working in higher education can be isolating. However, education is my job and my passion. My Latino students’ eyes light up when they find out they have a professor who actually sees them and hears them fully.
Coming Full Circle
I tell my Latino students, “You are anything and everything; we need you because you can be anything in this world, and everything we need as well.” Representation matters, and the joy of teaching at the college level is that I get to lift up Latino students and encourage them to become any and everything that they choose to be.
Latino students pursuing higher education, you’re not alone in this. Here are four suggestions to help you learn from my experience and be a part of the change for the next generation!
1. Meet with your advisor early in your first year to come up with a strategy to complete your bachelor’s degree. Build that relationship and lean on their advice.
2. Plan ahead. What are your required courses? What electives will enhance your education? When do you need to take each course to balance your schedule and succeed in your degree?
3. Take the next step! Research graduate schools and consider joining the academy as a professor yourself. Apply to scholarships for Latino students and graduate fellowships to pay for your program of choice.
4. Lastly, find your crew. Find that group of people who understand you and will help you through the hard times. When you want to quit, run to them. Getting an education is challenging, but it is worth the hardship and work!