An article published by the Pew Research Center authored by Jens Manuel Krogstad, titled "5 Facts about Latinos and Education," states, "Hispanic dropout rate remains higher than that of Blacks, Whites, and Asians." This hit home for me, because virtually no one else in my family has a degree – college or otherwise.
Being Hispanic, I find it nearly impossible to avoid hearing my own culture being talked about in the media – especially now that DACA, the border wall, and Trump are all being discussed, often in one sentence. The one thing that is rarely talked about is our education system and how Hispanics keep falling behind. The relationship between our culture and the educational system needs restructuring.
Hispanic-Americans are growing in numbers and in cultures. I use the term "cultures" because Hispanics come in all races and backgrounds, and because of this, they also have their own varying sets of traditions and values. Latinos desire an education, but their actions do not correlate with their aspirations. They want an education but do not do what is necessary to obtain it. Hispanics are the majority-minority group in America, yet they have the lowest level of educational attainment of any major demographic slice of the U.S. Latinos who do not come from an independent educational tradition are the ones who get hurt.
There is a disconnect between our society and our cultural beliefs. Most Hispanics of my acquaintance understand the importance of getting an education, but only in so far as it leads to immediate earnings to help take care of the family. Often these two goals are in conflict, and families will choose jobs over education. For many Hispanics, including me, a drive for educational achievement was never something our families cared to instill. My mother expressed the importance of learning another language and going to school but always enforced getting a job and helping support the family as the first priority.
As the Pew article touched on, Latinos dream of going to college and often do, but their culture does not push them toward it. Hispanics are told things like: "That's not for you" or "You have to find a spouse and have kids and raise them." Rarely are we told things like "Go after your education." The few that do break from the cycle and go to college run into a plethora of problems, ranging from the micro-fiduciary issues to the macro-family issues.
Growing up, I was always in competition with my cousin Joe, from elementary to high school. We lived in the same household, and would compare grades. I always felt inferior. Joe was always making the grades I could not and reading books beyond his grade level. He would often go above and beyond with his assignments to ensure an A in every class. Joe had a thirst for knowledge, and anyone who spoke to him instantly knew he was going to make something of himself. While he was a shoe-in for a prestigious college, I would be lucky to get accepted anywhere.
It came as a big shock to my family and me when Joe dropped out of high school. He dropped out because he was bored with the education he was receiving and it felt like a waste of his time, getting something that would not mean anything. He later decided to obtain his GED so he could gain entry into a college for a real education.
Our high school education system is not challenging our bright minds, but is instead leading them into a vicious cycle of mediocrity. Over the years, I found college banal and easy, not because I studied and changed my ways, but because I took easy courses and easy professors who would help me obtain that "piece of paper." As I moved up from freshman to junior year, I noticed a steady decline in grades once I found myself in more rigorous courses. I fell more and more behind when compared to my peers. Subsequently, at the community college, my cousin was bored with the same mediocre teaching methods that caused him to drop out of high school. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he again dropped out of school.
I obtained financial aid and scholarships to help pay for college and later grad school. I graduated with my B.A. with almost no debt. Money was not the issue for me, and if one's willing to jump through hoops, college can be paid for. The difficulties after getting into college were in finding peers I could look up to; coming across ways not to feel inferior to my classmates; discovering where I belonged in a sea of students who did not share my culture or customs; and finding ways to separate myself from my family, who constantly needed me.
Our paths at one point seemed so intertwined that it is hard to understand what went wrong. I ultimately graduated, went on to graduate school, and am now a university professor. Joe, on the other hand, continues to progress through life without nurturing his natural intellectual affinity. How did a smart kid, who was bound for success, fail at something that was second nature to him? Experts keep claiming that it is a money issue, but in fact, that is the smallest issue. The big problem had to do with his education and culture.
Growing up Hispanic, we are told things as children that stay with us through adulthood. We are told family is everything. You never turn your back on them and stay nearby because they will always be there for you. Our parents tell us to want more but do not offer support when we go after our educational dreams. Frequently, discouraging remarks are made: "Why are you wasting your time with that, get a job" or "You could be making money and starting a family." We do not get a support network. I was able to see this subtle influence only once I moved away to start grad school in Indiana, at Purdue University.
I was not a talented student, or even very smart. My family never supported my choices or my dream of getting a degree. Sure, they would say things like "go after it," but the moment it became an inconvenience, they told me to stop. If it were not for a professor who saw potential and took an interest in me, I might have been in Joe's shoes now. My mentor pushed me and challenged me to be better. Once I left my family, I began to see what was keeping me down: it was my own beliefs and family. These traits are passed down from one generation to another in a never-ending cycle. In order to break that cycle and succeed, I turned my back on my culture and my family.
Joe stayed close to the family around the same location where he grew up. He got married, bought a house with his wife, and found jobs that paid. Those jobs are not writing jobs, but they pay frequently and often. He became a waiter and later a bartender. He is able to pay his bills and go on trips. He did everything our culture wanted him to do. All he had to do was give up on his dreams of becoming a sports journalist. I, on the other hand, was not ready to let mine go.
It was years later that Joe told me he dropped out of college. He got tired of students leaving after four years of college and knowing as much as they did when they entered the classroom in year one. He got tired of professors demanding the very minimum on assignments and giving him a B, which for many colleges has become the new average. He continued, "Why would I waste my time working hard to get the same grades as someone who spends most of his time smoking, getting drunk, and not studying? I thought college would be harder, but instead it is exactly like high school." He wanted to be proud of himself and to be around people who valued an education.
Joe would not settle for anything less than a real education. It is because of this that I get so upset that in a diverse class of 22 students, with eight Hispanics on average, I will have five failing my class. Too many Hispanics are failing college, and it is not because they are stupid; it is cultural. My Latino students often give me legitimate explanations as to why they cannot complete the course, but the constant excuse is for family reasons. Joe would have been one of the few Hispanics who would be passing a rigorous college-level course. Joe was so skilled in a system that shortchanged him in high school and again in college that he was not able to achieve more. He might have been a great journalist, but who knows now?
Hispanic-Americans need to start claiming our educational voices and talking about our educational system. The problem is not money; it is our attitude toward our education. Our system needs to know that we are not doing well, but are indeed languishing behind. Our friends, family, and culture should adapt, and parents need to be involved in their children's educational outcomes. If Hispanics are in trouble, so are we all.