by Matthew Chase

Cultural centers on campus are a response to the silencing of culturally marginalized voices in academic spaces. College has been historically privileged to white, heterosexual, middle- to upper-class men. With the civil rights movement came an emergence in diversity and justice discourses at the universities, calling for better representation of students who did not reflect the “typical” mold. Sadly these centers remain far from a nationwide practice, while institutional racism continues to subsist in academia and the university. To better inform the importance of cultural centers and their role in resisting the problem of racism in higher education, I would like to show how a center can improve the experiences for Latin@s* as they navigate campus life. My focus on a Latin@ cultural center is largely drawn on work I’ve done to support the creation of such a center at my alma mater, but this blog can also demonstrate the necessity of centers for other marginalized student communities.

Latin@ college students often face institutional values and norms that conflict with their cultural heritage and upbringing, resulting in culture shock, feelings of doubt, and impostor syndrome. This conflict takes shape as Latin@ college students find their own cultural values non-congruent with and even invalidated in the university environment; values in the Latin@ culture such as familismo (family), confianza (trust), and solidaridad (resilience through collective problem-solving). This ultimately translates into the need to reconcile between: (1) a Latin@ student’s responsibilities and commitments to family and their pursuit for higher education, and (2) the contrast between the university’s assumptions about the “typical” student and the cultural differences that Latin@ students face as a result.

Latin@ students continue to face discrimination and a lack of support in their pursuit of higher education, impacting their performance negatively. One study explained the generally lower levels of psychological well-being among Latin@ students compared to white students to be the result of factors such as university size, campus environment, perceived lack of institutional support, and financial costs. There is a significant relationship between psychological distress among ethnic minority students like Latin@s and to what they refer to as minority stress. Minority stress is defined as the stresses students experience as a result of their ethnic minority status, leading to problems with college success and a sense of exclusion in the university environment. These stresses have strong negative consequences for Latin@ students such as lower writing, reading, and mathematical skills.

Given the consequences of this cultural dissonance, it is important to understand then why Latin@ students are pursuing higher education and why it matters. Many Latin@ students look to education as a means to effecting real systemic change and to improving the conditions facing their communities, drawing from the cultural value of familismo. Attaining a college degree is essentially an act of social justice. Latin@s are socialized early in young adulthood to not only have cultural pride but an in-depth understanding of racial-ethnic discrimination in U.S. society as well. This preparation for bias in broader society informs Latin@ students’ understanding of barriers in the campus environment and their distrust of academic institutions. Latin@ students recognize links between the diminishing resources available to them on campus and institutional racism.

When universities produce culturally-relevant and affirming environments, whereby Latin@ culture is used as a powerful and essential resource for many students navigating the U.S. university environment, it has led to better academic performance and higher levels of life satisfaction in general. As such, there is a call for universities to institute a culturally competent environment that does not reproduce the cultural deficiency model in alienating Latin@ students. Possible cultural center services that address issues of campus racism might include research repositories, Latin@ community resources, and faculty mentoring.

So it is not just how institutional factors and campus climate can impact Latin@ identities and student stresses, but also how these same institutions can address the problem. The question remains though as to “how” this is achieved, and where a Latin@ cultural center again comes into play. Latin@ students hold to the value of solidaridad as they highly appreciate giving back to their community the same opportunities they have attained academically and career-wise. Interpersonal responsibility is deeply embedded in Latin@ culture, extending the value of familismo to community. It would be beneficial to have a Latin@ cultural center facilitate service learning and university-community engagement, building on these cultural values of family and community among Latin@ students.

Speaking more to these values of relationship and social support, studies have also shown that creating and maintaining social networks has a significant impact on college adjustment, academic persistence, and career planning for Latin@ students. These social networks with family, peers, and faculty often provide a valuable protective strategy against minority status stresses.  The issue is complicated further as Latin@ students experience a need to become self-reliant so as not to burden their families, friends, and faculty. This is a reflection of the conflict they face in the university culture, which upholds a more individualistic approach to college student success. Yet solidaridad and confianza can be nurtured within the campus environment to motivate students to seek social support.

Isolated and marginalized, Latin@ students seek out students and faculty who share a similar ethnic background and experience similar culture issues. Mentors, whether they are faculty or student peers, can act as a very powerful and positive academic resource for many Latin@ students. The need for mentors who reflect the students’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds is demonstrated in the literature. The Latin@ cultural center can provide space where Latin@ mentors and students can organize and institute systemic change addressing the problem of racism in higher education.

Academic persistence becomes an organized activity on campus rather than an individual one. This giving back and giving forward is clearly linked to solidaridad, as Latin@ students seek to mobilize support not only for themselves, but the student body and the local communities as well. The university should take this opportunity to infuse a sense of community, confianza, and cultural pride. Several studies have already shown the very strong relationship between academic persistence and students’ perceptions of campus diversity, connectedness and belonging, and institutional support.

Yet it is important to consider the diverse dimensions and experiences even among Latin@ college students. Not all Latin@ students have the same needs or confront the same issues. Take undocumented Latin@ students, for example. Despite their underrepresentation in the literature, they have consistently indicated to experiencing issues accessing academic and community services as a result of lacking legal documentation and identification. These services could prove otherwise beneficial to addressing the trauma of fearing and of being constantly vigilant of apprehension and deportation. These same services might be central to the work of a Latin@ cultural center on campus, serving an increasingly diverse community confronting patterns of racism, nativism, institutional discrimination, isolation, and fear. We also need to consider the needs of LGBTQ Latin@ students who face systemic discrimination for their non-binary gender and sexual identities. Peers and faculty of shared intersectional identities can help address their needs and concerns, with the Latin@ cultural center being a space for this crucial networking as well as a site of critical knowledge production.

There is a strong need for spaces where Latin@ students’ cultures can be reflected in the university, building on a sense of validation and pride that extends to their academic success and persistence. The Latin@ cultural center can represent not just a safe place for Latin@ students to access, but also a place where they can organize community solidarity. Under the values of solidaridad and confianza, Latin@ students can actively work together, building coalitions among peers and faculty to address the problem of racism in higher education and the resulting minority status stresses that they confront on a daily basis. As mentioned above, the literature has consistently shown that the pursuit for higher education is an act of social justice for many Latin@ students, and this justice-based approach is needed in making a cultural center successful. The experiences of Latin@ students with racism and systemic marginalization make up a relevant source of knowledge and a consciousness already oriented toward the goal of social justice. It is knowledge that they can activate within the cultural center to address these social problems to the benefit of not just themselves and their communities, but to the university’s well-being as a whole.

*I am using Latin@ as a gender-neutral term to reflect the vast diversity of Latin American identities and cultures