The Struggles and Victories of Latinas in Higher Education

For the first time in the United States, during the 2008-09 academic year, women earned a majority of the doctorates awarded. Yet people of color are still underrepresented in institutions of higher learning. Given this information, what does it mean to be a Latina in graduate school?

“The Struggles and Victories of Latinas in Higher Education” is an environmental portrait series that documents the struggle and victories of one such group of Latina women. By exploring their experiences, we get a glimpse of how they reconcile life with academic success in institutions that may not necessarily represent them. Ultimately, this series aims to serve as a mirror for them. And hopefully, holds up a mirror for those who have yet to see themselves in these institutions.

Denise Gonzalez

Hometown: San Diego, CA

Degrees: B.S. in Biology from UCLA, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from UC Davis; Ph.D. from UC Davis

“I think the most difficult thing for me has been the writing process. I do not consider myself a good writer and since it has been a while since I have written about research, starting my dissertation has been such a challenge. It’s also been difficult to write because I have not had much guidance on the writing process, in contrast to my lab work where I always feel open to asking for help and guidance with experiments.”

“Some of my favorite experiences include finding a group of supportive and like-minded graduate students that I can call my friends. We are all from different disciplines but that does not stop us from understanding and supporting each other. Another one of my favorite experiences is figuring out a work-life balance. At times it is difficult, but once you figure out the routine that makes you happy you continually strive to get back to that routine. I also loved my experience in veterinary school. The faculty was always supportive of the students inside the classroom and in clinical rotations. Clinical year was tough, but at the same time very much enjoyable.”

Lisandra Ochoa

Hometown: Stockton, CA

Degrees: B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior from UC Davis, B.A. in Chicano/a Studies from UC Davis,; M.S. in Public Health from UC Davis

“[A favorite experience in academia is] finding other students like myself, who have had to overcome many of the adversaries that come with being an underserved minority, and still manage to succeed in academia. They became my family away from home.”

Raquel Rojas

Hometown: Terra Bella, CA

Degrees: B.A. in Art Studio and Political Science from UC Davis; currently working on a Masters in Fine Arts at Cal State Los Angeles

“I find that the lack of people of color in academia is challenging. In addition to that, there are a not enough women of color in academia in the arts. I find that when I have an issue or a concept in my work that is about feminist thought, my professors seem to glaze over it and speak only to the aesthetic value in a way that dismisses the ideology behind my work.”

“I love being able to question and challenge my professors. In my thesis paper, I am pointing out this lack of women of color in the subject matter of contemporary art. I am proposing that the material needs to be reviewed for the benefit of the students that the program is serving.”

Lisceth Cruz

Hometown: I consider many places my hometown as they have impacted who I have become. Now, as I am a mother, “home” is wherever my children are.

Degrees: A.A. from Santa Rosa Junior College, B.A. in International Relations and Chicana/o Studies from UC Davis; M.A. in Mexican American Studies from San Jose State University; Ph.D. in Educational Policy and School Organization from UC Davis

“For me, the hardest part of academia has been the constant fight to debunk stereotypes. I feel the burden of constantly being the only female of color at the table. However, I recognize the importance of my presence and the importance of representing people of color.”

Leonela Carriedo

Hometown: California native, moved to Nashville, TN, but home is where the heart is

Degrees: B.S. in Biology from Middle Tennessee State University; Ph.D. in Plant Biology from UC Davis

“I found the transition into being a graduate student a bit difficult for a number of reasons. It was my first time leaving my family, I knew no one in the Davis area, and I was taking on courses I had little background in. Also, I was not prepared for the amount of independence I would be given as a graduate student. These things made me feel isolated and at times depressed. But many other people new to graduate school are in the same boat, so friendships are bound to happen.”

“My favorite experiences as a Ph.D. student has been involving undergraduates in research. There has been times when I felt that I could not push my dissertation forward, and I knew I needed some help. I brought a couple of students onto my projects and not only did they help tremendously with my work, they uplifted me and made me want to be the best role model for them and help them along with their career aspirations. Also, I went to Beijing, China for an international conference and met a lot of great scientists and got to see a part of the world that I likely would have not had the chance to see during graduate school.”

Rocío Mendoza

Hometown: La Puente, CA

Degrees: B.A. in Sociology from Cal State Fullerton; M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from University of Washington; Ph.D. (in progress) in Education from Claremont Graduate University

“As a first-generation graduate student, I feel like I am stumbling into my academic career or is reluctance? I have developed a moral discomfort with academia, a system that is capitalistic, that asks for so much in terms of productivity, time and energy, and will keep taking as long as you keep giving and gives little in return. These feelings both drive me towards and away from the work.”

“Paradoxically, academia has also been a place where I have met so many amazing community of dear mentors, friends and colleagues, who are like family now. We celebrate, commiserate, and remind ourselves of why we entered this work in the first place; of what truly matters—the work we do with and for our communities to disrupt systems and make changes in the lives and educational experiences of people of color. Learning a language to articulate and ‘name our pain,’ as bell hooks writes, has been healing. Working on college applications with Latinx immigrant parents and their high school students, and talking about life issues throughout the process, has been healing. Working with undergraduates and helping them and myself understand false notions of meritocracy —‘I need to get the best GPAs, get into the best grad schools,’ etc.— has been healing. Being able to connect with people in authentic ways, within these structures, has been healing. These are some of my favorite experiences in higher ed that fill me with hope for the work that lies ahead.”

Anel Jaramillo

Hometown: Dallas, TX

Degrees: B.S. in Biology from University of Texas at Austin; Ph.D. in Neurobiology from University of North Carolina

“Favorite experience is discovering something. There’s no better feeling than having your work answer a scientific question that no one else has an answer to. Aside from that mentoring, it’s really rewarding to pass on that curiosity to other students and showing them that their work can have a huge impact in the field.”

Lizette Rodríguez

Hometown: Woodlake, CA

Degrees: B.S. in Nutrition Science from UC Davis; M.S. in Nutritional Biology from UC Davis

“The most difficult thing was believing I was capable of performing. Sometimes our insecurities get the best of us. First it was my insecurity with science, after I overcame that, it was my insecurity with writing. In retrospect, these were just challenges and opportunities preparing me for my next steps.”

Nidia Trejo

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

Degrees: B.A. in Design from UC Davis, B.S. in Textile Science from UC Davis; M.S. in Fiber Science from Cornell

“I really enjoyed going to my general chemistry instructor’s office hours at UC Davis as a freshman. Dr. Enderle helped me make chemistry my strength as I transitioned into science coursework. He was very patient about reviewing concepts and going through examples step-by-step. Also, I loved participating in the McNair Scholars Program at UC Davis to prepare and learn about graduate school.”

Elizabeth Gonzalez

Hometown: Somewhere between Oaxaca, Mexico and San Marcos, CA

Degrees: B.A. from UCLA, M.S. in Psychology from UC Santa Cruz; Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from UC Santa Cruz

“Imposter syndrome is real for people who are underrepresented. Once you start to internalize that you don’t belong or that you’re wrong, that’s colonialism. Having to fight that is exhausting.”

Cristian Heredia is a California-based social documentary photographer. He earned an Electrical Engineering Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. His projects aim to visually explore culture.