TLOP. Dissertation Synopsis PT 1

Three years into my PhD program, I find myself now a doctoral candidate preparing for the dissertation phase. My time at USC, specifically within the Center for Urban Education, has focused on understanding the educational inequities in community college and assisting practitioners in understanding their data to make informed-decisions to improve institutional policies, structures, and practices to mitigate educational inequities for students of color. I’ve also explored two state-level policies intended to improve the conditions, experiences, and outcomes for students in community college. My first two years focused on a state-wide transfer reform policy, SB-1440, exploring how it was implemented and the impact it had on transfer success, particularly for students of color. Recently, my research has been dedicated to the Student Equity Policy, a state mandate providing community colleges with funds to address outcome equity gaps on campus. The policy requires individual campuses to develop a student equity plan[1] which includes an equity-audit across five indicators of student success, identifying disproportionately-impacted student groups, proposing goals and activities to address equity gaps for those groups, and strategically using equity funds to achieve them.

A few weeks ago, I defended and passed my qualifying exam. With that milestone achieved, the next step has been to think of the details of my dissertation study and articulate them in a proposal. One-liners at conferences and abstract ideas no longer suffice. It’s time to outline the fine-grained details of my culminating project at USC. Since becoming a candidate, I’ve been overwhelmed with ideas and decisions to make in moving forward. One of which has weighed heavily on me, the choice of chapter- or paper-based dissertation. I’ve spoken with my advisor, mentors, currently dissertating and recently graduated students. I’m still mulling it over, although I shouldn’t dwell on it too much. The end destination is in sight, but with different roads to take, I just need to pick the route that works best for me and drive.

As I prepare for the dissertation phase, I must make the argument that this study is warranted, that I have a theoretically-grounded and methodologically-rigorous approach, that there will be expected results that can contribute towards policy, practice, and scholarship, all the while being feasible within a constrained amount of time. Before going into the dissertation description, I must remind myself that this is a passion project, that both my personal and professional identities are committed to this work. That the dissertation is an extension of who I am, but ultimately is bigger than me.

Two factors prompt this study as a passion project. First, when I came to USC, I didn’t intend to study community colleges, but that is where I found my community. Nearly 70% of all Latinx undergraduates in the state are in community colleges. Many of them have aspirations to transfer or attain a credential or degree, but fail to achieve that goal given a myriad of issues created by institutional policies, structures, and practices. Community colleges are the primary higher education entry point for Latinx[2] students; they serve as institutions of educational promise and that’s where I need to be. Second, my time with CUE and my advisor have ingrained the ideas that research must be socially conscious, that racial equity must be central, and that change must occur within institutions and among practitioners. Observing Estela do work is a strong reminder that theory and research must be used towards emancipatory ends. Meaning that this project is not a task of the mind, but one that attempts to address real problems facing communities of color. So with that said, this a brief synopsis of my dissertation project: what I plan to study, how I plan to study it, and a path to move forward.

California higher education has an equity problem[3]. Students of color are overwhelmingly concentrated in community colleges that are underfunded and overburdened. Despite greater participation in higher education over the years, attendance for students of color has been stratified by institutional type and sector. Furthermore, students of color face major challenges with respect to persistence, transfer, and graduation given high rates of placement in remedial education, low support with educational aspirations, and interaction with institutional policies, structures, and practices that may not be culturally sustaining for these students. These conditions have created unequal conditions through racially-segregated pathways that produce inequities in experiences and educational outcomes (Carnevale & Strohl, 2013). The Master Plan, which once served as the golden example, has shifted from open-access to closed opportunities.

Policies, funding priorities, and academic stratification have created a situation where the least resourced institutions serve the students with the greatest needs (Bastedo & Jacquette, 2011). Over the last forty years, the composition of community colleges have shifted to serve more students of color seeking educational opportunities. Malcom (2013) described community college as the de facto minority-serving sector. In 2014, of all Latino and African American undergraduate students in California more than 68% were enrolled in community colleges. Complicating issues is the inequitable funding provided to community colleges. In 2013-2014, CCCs funding per FTE was $6,442 compared to $13,268 for state-comprehensives and $22,769 for public-research institutions (Legislative Analyst Office, 2016). The Century Foundation (2015) found that public and private research universities spent three and five times, respectively, more per student than community colleges. The inequity in fiscal resources partly contribute to the low success rates found in community college (Belfield, Costra, & Jenkins, 2014; Schudde & Goldrick-Rab, 2014).


Without adequate fiscal support, community colleges are unable to successfully carry out the many functions (e.g., remedial education, short-term training, transfer preparation) placed upon them. Hence, it is perhaps unsurprising that community colleges have the lowest completion rates of all postsecondary institutions in the nation; only 17 percent of students who begin their education at a community college complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of transferring (CCRC, 2015). Gonzales (2015) argues that differences in fiscal support demonstrate a “de facto segregated system of higher education” that produces disparities in completion rates for students attending less selective institutions such as community colleges. In California’s Community Colleges (CCC) only 47% graduate with a certificate, associate’s degree or transfer after six years. Conversely, the University of California (UC) system, has the highest levels of funding per student and a six year degree completion rate of 84 % (See Table 1).


What have policymakers done to address educational inequities in community college?

To better support community colleges in the state to address educational inequities, policymakers revised and enacted the Student Equity Policy (SEP) in 2014. The policy was originally adopted in 1992 during a period of affirmative action which encouraged policymakers to draft legislation that addressed historic and current forms of discrimination for different racial and ethnic groups (Gurin, Lehman, & Lewis, 2004). In the 1992-1993 “Guidelines to Developing a Student Equity Plan” the description of the Student Equity Policy was tied to readdressing racial inequities to promote a better future for California. Below I share an underpinning rationale of the plans:

 It matters to our future and to our students… California will not be a pleasant place to live for any of us if a permanent underclass largely composed of those from ethnic minorities has little stake in society and little hope for the future…. If community colleges work successfully in the effort to increase rates of student success, the State just might have a better future. If we fail, it is hard to imagine who else can make up for our failure. (authors’ emphasis, Guichard, 1992, p. 8)

The policy initially required each individual district, now individual college, to develop a student equity plan that a) examined campus data and identified student groups facing disproportionate inequities in the five areas of access, basic skills, course completion, degree/certificate completion, and transfer, b) develop goals to mitigate identified gaps, c) create activities and interventions aligned with articulated goals, d) indicate sources of funding, and e) create a process for evaluation. Unfortunately, the guidelines set by the student equity policy were never actualized during the introductory period. For over twenty years, the Student Equity Policy was overlooked, unfunded, and under-implemented. Ching and Felix (2015) found the policy ineffective and left dormant based on the unstable economic period and affirmative action backlash of the late 1990s.

Under Governor Jerry Brown and recent legislative periods, community colleges have had a more favorable policy climate in California. Community colleges have benefited from policies that expanded student support services (SB-1456) and established new transfer pathways (SB-1440). In 2014, the Student Equity Policy was revised by the state legislature and funded for the first time. As a state-level policy tool, the student equity plan creates an opportunity for California Community Colleges to more seriously examine whether and to what extent inequitable student outcomes exist on their campuses. The funding provided by the Governor’s budget helps ensure that colleges will be able to address the issues uncovered from data analysis and inquiry. Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 fiscal year, $380 million dollars have been allocated towards addressing equity issues in community colleges by the state legislature. Each college is awarded equity funds based on a six-factor formula that includes enrollment size, students’ socioeconomic status, community participation rate, and the poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment rates of each service area. The funding provided helps to achieve the goals, activities, and interventions established in a college’s student equity plan to mitigate identified equity gaps for various student populations.


Study Significance
California has the largest community college system in the United States with 113 institutions serving over 2.3 million students (American Association of Community Colleges, 2016). Over two-thirds of all first-time black and Latinx undergraduate in the state are enrolled in community college (Campaign for College Opportunity, 2015a, 2015b). The Student Equity Policy dedicated millions in funding for community colleges in the state to identify equity gaps on campus, target groups facing disproportionate impact, and develop strategies and interventions to improve student equity for those groups.

There are very few examples of equity-focused policies in higher education, California’s Student Equity Policy is the only such policy in the nation. To date, there has been little research examining the implementation of the policy across the state (Legislative Analyst Office, 2016; Melguizo et al., 2015). More importantly, there is need to analyze the enactment of the policy and the ways campuses use the development of a student equity plan and funds to address equity gaps faced by students of color as they tend to experience the greatest disparities. Therefore, the goal of this dissertation project is to provide insight into the implementation of the SEP at both a statewide- and institutional-level. Such a study has implications for policymakers looking to develop equity-based higher education policy, practitioners trying to maximize the use of resources to improve outcomes, and researchers seeking to expand the literature on the implementation of community college policies.

So that’s it for PT1. Be on the look out for PT2 describing mah research questions, theoretical framework, and outlines for the three papers to be written.


[1] Student equity plans can be seen as an accountability mechanism for the policy and the funds distributed campuses.

[2] Latinx is used as a replacement for “Latina/o” to highlight both the border crossing and fluidity of identity within the Latina/o community. The term “Hispanic” is not used interchangeably, but only as a descriptor of formal categories such as “Hispanic-Serving Institution.” Our preference for Latinx is to empower students that are trans* and gender non-conforming, while pushing the binary identity positions in academia

[3] A recent report by the Young Invincibles gave the state an F in attainment equity for having the widest attainment gaps for Latinx in the nation and ranking near the bottom for African American students. More info:

[4] Students of color in this table include African American, Latinx, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Multiracial students.

[5] Success Rate is defined as the six-year graduation for each institution type. Data for the table was collected from,,

In Lak’ech

A reminder of our community, the struggles, the solidarity, the reciprocity of healing towards our liberation. Always renewed by my academic peers doing the work.

In Lak’ech
Tú eres mi otro yo
Si te hago daño a ti
Me hado daño a mi mismo
Si te amo y respeto
Me amo y respeto yo.

“Pensamiento Serpentino”Luis Valdez (1971)

The Things We Carry

Driving down a long stretch of the 15 freeway from San Diego, my wife asked “what are you thinking about?” I guess I had phased out of conversation and drifted away into thought. In my head, I was thinking about my grandfather’s remembrance the next day; who would show up, what I would say, how emotional I would get. Still driving, I just replied “its just the voice in my head.” I didn’t expand beyond that, I didn’t know how, but with some reflection here’s an attempt.

A few weeks before my grandfathers passing, a year today, I decided to conduct a life-history interview. We had a three hour conversation about a host topics; life in Guatemala, socialist revolutions in Central America, immigrating to the US, setting roots in Anaheim, and what was to come for the family after his passing. As we were driving home from SD, those conversations with my grandfather unfolded in my head. I remembered I had recorded the conversations and planned to edit them. I haven’t listened to them, lacking courage to hear his voice in the fragile state of his last days.

Although his words are most vivid today, I feel like I carry a piece of every conversation I’ve ever had. I remember the people, the room arrangements, the conversations, and sound-bites, like a line from my favorite movie. Sometimes I think its just the way my memory works; a reminder of why I chose to study history. I can remember dates and facts, but more importantly I can easily recall experiences, memories, and conversations from years past.

My first “official” interview was with Connie G., it was part of an Oral History course collecting stories on Women’s roles in Great Britain during WWII for CSUF’s Center for Public Oral History in 2003. Who can forget their first interview? I remember studying the interview protocol for a week, triple checking that the recorder worked, and that I was cued up to flip the cassette when we reached 45 minutes. I also remember rearranging “the interview site” to mimic the guide provide (See below).

Image from the CSUF’s COPH Student Interview Guide

From the first conversation to ones held two weeks ago, they stay ever present. Something about people giving of themselves and sharing their experiences with me. Descriptions of  war, alienation on college campuses, the struggles of being undocumented, and living in communities where they feel robbed of an education, an opportunity. Across years, contexts, and campuses, these voices resonate with me. Remembering their stories, struggles, and triumphs is only one way to pay homage to their experiences.

I assume others have similar experiences. Especially those who are drawn to oral histories, narratives, storytelling, and interviews as research tools. As a researcher, its like being selected the Receiver of Memory in The Giver. Having the ability (responsibility) to retain and recall the memories of those you’ve engaged with. Maybe that’s going to far, but I don’t think so. From the day we meet, from the conversations we have, those stories and experiences shared, they become part of the things we carry.

Dando la mano

To my brother,

We’ve been made to feel neglected, tossed aside, and told we aren’t good enough. We’ve attended schools that have made us suffer more than thrive. Places were teachers and administrators didn’t believe in us, our communities, or our values. Through every segment of our educational journeys we’ve had to remove obstacles, jump hurdles, and be excellent just to prove we are equals.

I write this to you, and those marginalized by our schooling systems.

Through schooling you’ve faced a greater burden than I. You had to attend three elementary schools, two junior highs, and four high schools. It wasn’t just the instability of different classrooms. But the variation of people and policies in these schools and how they treated you, a person of color. From attending a zero-tolerance school that tried to expel you on false accusations. To transferring from one school to another and them not acknowledging your IEP for nearly a year. Your educational experience has been off putting. You’ve been made to feel as a failure. But the truth is, you’ve participate in a system that was not meant for you. A system that was designed to fail brown boys.

Don’t let a system that wants created from define who and what you are.

Now you find yourself in community college. Balancing work, family, and classes. You’ve shared your stories: counseling that leaves your more confused than when you walked in, a teacher that doesn’t want to teach, and being placed in remediation when there are no courses available for a first year student to advance.

Being ten years apart, I looked from afar as most of this happen. I think of what blame should be placed on me. I moved out for college when you were seven, I focused on my studies. I missed out on your formative years. Chasing my dreams, I wasn’t the big brother I hoped to be. I might have failed you, maybe I still do. It’s a burden I carry; especially knowing that I’ve worked in college outreach and admissions, but I couldn’t help you.

It’s important to acknowledge this and use it as motivation to do better.

Writing this reminds me of our Grandma and church on sundays. How we would end the morning with “dando la mano y extendiendo la paz,” which roughly translating to reaching out your hand and extending peace. Although it seems like we’ve encountered more people who have used that hand extension to push us back and keep us away from educational promise, it’s important we still extend and help uplift.

We must be the optimists, those hoping to see change and transformation in our schools and communities. If not for us, but for our community, or future sons and daughters.

I’d like to think that everything I do is for my family. I’d like to think that my research, in any way possible, can help you. That the work I do, can help our community push against systems, structures, and institutions that weren’t for us. To create anew; something that validates us rather than pushing us to the margins. As I face tougher milestones in my program I dedicate this journey to you. At the same time, I rededicated myself to being researcher who advocates for people like us and communities like ours facing educational injustices. I commit myself to this work in hopes to reach out and uplift.

–Eric Felix (Your Brother)

Late Track – School Discipline & College Access

Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums
Based off the way we was branded
Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon

When Yeezy raps, “Jerome get more time than Brandon,” he alludes to the severity and overrepresentation of African Americans in the criminal justice system. A criminal justice system with a direct pipeline to urban schools created by disciplinary policies and practices that hyper-criminalize black and Latina/o youth (Rios, 2006). Taking from Ye again, I think about his line, “the system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open” illuminating the relationship between schools and prisons tied by through the discriminatory nature of our educational system. A system where children as young as five are suspended (Seattle Times, 2015; UCLA Center for Civil Rights, 2015), removed from school for several days, and robbed of their educational experience, creating a ripple effect across their lifespan development (Reyes, 2006; Rist, 1973).

School discipline is a new area of research for me, but the experiences themselves are not. I’ve seen these adverse disciplinary policies take their toll on my community, local schools, and even derail sibling’s high school experience. I’ve dedicated my work to college access and understanding ways to remedy the inequities in higher education. While at Penn, I’ve focused on understanding the impact of disciplinary practices on African American and Latino students in California high schools.

Disciplinary Action and College Access
It’s made me think about the ways in which discriminatory disciplinary policies affect college access for our communities of color. Historically, students of color have been excluded from higher education. We are under enrolled in postsecondary education, with limited access to selective four-year institutions, while concentrated in community colleges; much of this stems from socio-historical forces that structure/inhibit the educational opportunities for black and brown students.

As a team at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education we explore disciplinary rates for African American and Latina/o students in California high schools. As previous research demonstrates (Balfanz, 2012; Monroe, 2013; Sikba 1998, 2006, 2010; UCLA Civil Rights Project, 2015), we found that students of color, particularly African American students in urban areas, are severely overrepresented and disproportionately impacted when it comes to suspensions and expulsions. I’ve begun to analyze data, read up on literature, and work with colleagues committed to disrupting and dismantling the schools to prison pipeline.

In 2011-2012, over 3.4 million public school students had served at least one out of school suspension (OCR, 2014). Given both the number and average length of suspensions, researchers estimated that public school students, primarily our brown and black sons and daughters, lost almost 18 million days of classroom instruction (UCLA, 2015). 18 million days, that’s 18,000,000. In our analysis, we found a school where Black students were suspended 42 times their school enrollment rate. Another school had more black students suspended than enrolled in calculus. In addition, many of these biased and exclusionary disciplinary practices (Balfanz, 2012; Rios, 2006, Monroe, 2013) lead to days, if not weeks off-campus, in more severe cases, expulsion from HS or the district. What does that mean for those who aspire towards college? Missing 3-5 days of classes, content, and peer interactions; at times receiving little or no educational support while serving the suspension.

In terms of access to higher education, what good does redesigning financial aid, creating holistic admission practices, or expanding college knowledge, if we have racist policies that remove our students from school as early as pre-kindergarten. Balfanz, Brynes, and Fox (2012) found that out-of-school suspensions in the ninth grade significantly and negatively correlated with decreased high school graduation, as well as college enrollment and persistence rates. There is no college bound student without the opportunity to be in class, on campus, learning. Removing students via these disciplinary policies and practices perpetuates stratification in our educational system, create new barriers to higher education, furthers inequities in society, and stagnates our community’s push for civil rights and equality.

From the work at Penn, there is clear evidence of discrimination and disproportionality within disciplinary policies. Additional research provides evidence that our bodies, both black and brown, are discriminated against, are policed, and are pushed out of schooling and academic spaces. We need to name the disparities. Make explicit challenges to these institutionalized policies that destroy us, hate us. These policies sabotage our communities, our futures, and our progress.

Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor reminds me :

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. [Schuette Case]

That is my/our intent of this. To highlight the disproportionate impact that disciplinary policies have on our African American and Latino children. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights collects data on “Discipline, Restraints/Seclusion, and Harassment/Bullying” and provides a searchable database . This database is out there, but is it in the hands of parents, community members, or justice-seeking activists? It’s our hope that we name this problem and explicitly center our discussion on the racialized nature of disciplinary policies. While doing so, we also attempt to provide a framework for community stakeholders to ask more of their schools, administrators, and districts.

Why focus on race? I want to share one way naming the racialized experience of disciplinary action can create change. In mid-June, the Seattle Times reported on the school suspension rates based on OCR data. The headline ran, “Race dramatically skews discipline, even in elementary school” noting that “the racial gap starts as young as age 5.” Community members took the digestible data, tables, and insight to advocate for their children and community. At the same time, it seemed that disaggregating the data by race/ethnicity and illuminating the disproportionality, a paradigm shift occurred for educators, teachers, administrators, and board members alike.

At the July 1, 2015 meeting, the Seattle School Board added a discussion on these suspension rates where over a dozen community members provide public testimony on the subject. At that meeting the board passed a resolution (2014-15-35) placing a moratorium on out of school suspensions in elementary schools. The next step from this moratorium would be to change these policies, practices, and perceptions (Monroe, 2013) that lead to the disparate in disciplinary action for black and Latina/o students.

Institutional Accountability: The Role of Educators
I bold perceptions since Skiba and colleagues (2003) argue that teacher and administrators’ beliefs and perceptions perpetuate disciplinary disparities based on racial lines. The impact of educator beliefs is especially true in schools that instill a “get tough philosophy, with a relatively strict adherence to rules regardless of the context” (Skiba et al., 2003, p. 6). This is noteworthy as a large number of infractions that lead to suspension are based in student behavior that threatens teacher authority (Balfanz et al., 2012). In this context, it’s an educator’s disciplinary philosophy that disproportionately and discriminately punishes students of color. Given the documented history of school malaise, these acts of challenge teacher authority may be students of color resisting the oppressive nature of schooling (Dumas, 2014; Giroux, 2001; Gregory & Mosely, 2004).

It’s the City of Angels and Constant Danger
As my time in Philadelphia winds down [I’m back], I wonder how this experience will influence my work and what I do to address the issue back in Los Angeles. I’m situated at USC, many of the schools and students I work with have experienced and lived through these discriminatory policies. Zooming in on the data we’ve analyzed, we are home to some of the most severe cases of individual schools penalizing African American and Latin/o students, particularly within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Of the 37 schools where Latino students accounted for 100% of the suspensions, 24 were LAUSD schools. There were six schools where African American students were the only one racial group suspended, five were within LAUSD.

Examining the data for LA is a reminder of the ways race-neutral policies adversely impact students of color. The disproportionate impact experienced by students of color are a direct results of zero-tolerance policies and discriminatory beliefs held by teachers and administrators in regards to behavior, authority, and people of color. It’s also a reminder that there is no college bound student when they are continuously suspended under racist policies. Lastly, it makes me think of LA’s own, Kendrick Lamar and how he would respond to the disproportionate suspension rates of African American and Latinx students, maybe he’d say:

You hate me don’t you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
And this is more than confession
I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion
I’m guardin’ my feelins, I know that you feel it
You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’

Kendrick’s words has me thinking, working, and advocating for ways to confront and dismantle the racist and discriminatory policies, practices, and beliefs that permeate our school systems, and society at large.


I never learned from Icarus
I took a dis, internalized it, and ran with it
My future was planned for me, n college wasn’t part of it.
Elementary teachers reinforced it, saying, “you never amount to anything”

Walking home from school with doubt, questioning how smart I was
My grandmother would counter that narrative, build up my confidence
At home it was math on the easel, reading at the library most afternoons,
History, Political Science, and Civics lessons with my grandpa in the garage
The cycle continued, broken down at school, built up at home…
But at least I recognized it

The lessons were learned, people didn’t want me educated,
schools just brought me down
I wasn’t the first to feel this way, but fam made sure I wouldn’t repeat it
Pushing forward with family as the foundation, making them proud – my motivation
Two generations ago my family weren’t allowed to go to school, they forged their own education

Growing up the library was a sanctuary, no judgments, no labels
I wasn’t ESL or the kid on free lunch
Just another student reading books for cheeseburgers
Through the school malaise, I found refugee in upward bound
They cultivated my academic prowess
Helped me internalize the scholar within

Since then I’ve felt invincible — Like I could achieve anything
On wings sown by my grandmother
With wind passed down by my grandfather
And the energy to keep it at by parent’s sacrifices
I ignore the naysayers, I fly towards the sun

They see me flying, they see me triumph
But its not about being the only one in the sky
It’s about figuring how to reach the clouds, touch the sun, then pass it on
Its not about rising above my community, but findings ways to rise with my community

I strive for greatness, Why not?
My family didn’t teach to settle for average
I learned how turn discrimination into fuel, underestimation into motivation
It all propels me forward, it keeps me flying
They talk about the dangers of getting too close to the sun, but…
I never learned from Icarus

Helping My Brother Along the #Comm_College Pathway

My work has always been personal, whether in student affairs, admissions counseling, or educational research. I’ve invested myself in these endeavors believing that maybe, in a small way, my work could help others. Particularly, helping low-income, first-gen, students of color reach their personal and educational goals given the myriad of systemic barriers placed in front of them. As I like to think, “I don’t sell em dreams, but the inspiration is free.” So I’m all about facilitating and empowering students along their educational journey. This has always been my approach to college outreach. I miss that access work, that’s probably why I try align my research within community colleges on understanding transfer/advising and the way that CCs revitalize access to the baccalaureate through the transfer process. I’m convinced that transfer advising is just as critical, if not more so, than high school guidance given the high concentration of first-gen, low-income, students of color in community colleges, especially in CA. Recent data finds that 80 percent of community college students intend to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree, but less than a 25 percent end up transferring (Jenkins & Fink, 2015). In addition to the overall transfer gap, African American and Latino students, who are overrepresented in community college, face the greatest inequity in transfer outcomes (Crisp & Nuñez, 2014; Moore & Shulock, 2010).

Two weeks ago I got a call from my brother, my only sibling, ten years my junior. He opened the call with, “I’m ready to sign up for college.” I nearly dropped the phone when I heard him breathe those words. I was excited and emotional to hear him reach out, to allow me to help him in his educational goals. After graduating high school he decided to forgo college and start working. My brother and I had different school experiences that alter the way we thought about education and schooling. As a college access person, I’ve always had guilt (placed on me by relatives) that I had failed to help the only person that mattered, my brother. Since then, I tried given him space, letting him know that I’d be there for him, when he was ready. So two years later he was ready and we talked. I asked “well, what do you think you want to study? Where do you think you want to go? And when do you want to start?” He mentioned he wanted to study automotive technology (a program that can be offered as technical training, degree-granting, and/or be transferable at different community colleges). He then shared that he wanted to attend somewhere local, given that he lives in Anaheim, he has several options around the area. And lastly he shared, that if possible he’d want to start in the summer, if not the fall.

Still on the phone, I continued to ask about his plans, “what research have you already done?” and before I shared my thoughts with him, I asked him, what do you think are best options for you?” Since I was wrapping up the semester, I said, lets meet in a week and I’ll bring more information to review then. As soon as I put the phone down I began planning my “advising” session with him. I thought to myself what type of guidance can I provide my brother? I wanted to provided information, without being overbearing and overwhelming. I felt confidence in my knowledge, I do have a college counseling background, I’ve researched community colleges the last two years, and this spring I had conducted ethnographic work at a transfer center, but wanted the delivery to be relevant to him.

He wants to get automotive tech training, acquire an AA, and then transfer, so there are numerous individual choices, institutional differences, and multiple pathways that could help or hinder him in achieving his educational goals. I decided to do three things: create a profile of the nearby community colleges, reach out to practitioners in the field, and better understand math/English assessment. First, I used the CCCCO Datamart to research the nearby community colleges. In total there are eight community colleges within three districts. The datamart is the info center for California community colleges with a range of data that can be pulled. I decided to create a simple table with completion and transfer metrics, both for the general population and Latinos. In addition, I checked each school if they offered some type of “automotive technology” program. Some schools offered the program as vocational only meaning that certificates of achievement (i.e., drivetrain specialist, brake certification, engine performance) could be attained. Other schools offered the program as an associates of science with the opportunity to transfer, which is closest to my brother’s goal. I then added headcount and counselor-to-student ratio to create a profile for each school. See the graphic below. I also included some crude equity analysis to see the gaps between the reference group and Latino students (in red font).

SAC_ExcelThe second thing I did was to contact two colleagues who work in automotive academic departments at LA community colleges. I asked them what they thought about the four schools that offer the program in Orange County, if there were advantages to one program format over another, and lastly to share any advice they could on navigating the process. They were helpful in understanding the slight differences in programs. For example College A can get students ASE certified, but focus on Toyotas whereas College B doesn’t certify but has a direct internship with Honda Dealerships to get their certification.

The third thing I did was look at the assessment process that each school used. Some schools used Accuplacer, others COMPASS, or the Math Diagnostic Testing Project (MDTP). I focused on assessment because of clear evidence of being a barrier for students in progressing into degree-granting and transferable-courses. Most recently it was estimated that 85% of students in CA need to take at least one remedial math course. Basic Skills progression is one of the most important areas to understand and improve: much of the inefficiencies and inequity in the high remedial placement of students of color is due to the assessment themselves. Shout out to the homie Federick Ngo and his article on Math Placement Decisions that helped me understand the different types of assessments and the move towards multiple measures. As well as this recent piece by Eloy Oritz that touches on more innovative practices such as LBCC’s College Promise Pathways Evaluation.

And this was especially important for my brother, like many other students I’ve meet at community college, he has been out of high school a few years, but has decided to continue his education. Looking at the image below, without preparation for these ineffective assessments, a student can be placed in Math N06 requiring at least five semesters of math courses before reaching a college-level, transferable course.

Math Sequence

You can best believe that we are going to freshen up on our Math and English; I’ve already practiced the MDTP placement practice questions (See below):

Level4 Image

So now equipped with data, advice, and assessment prep, I was ready to meet with my brother. In all, we probably spent 4-5 hours between reviewing different programs, college enrollment information, applying for the community college he selected, and then some assessment prep based on the diagnostic tool the campus uses. We first reviewed the table I created, we talked about how there were four schools that provide the program, but three of them provide the opportunity to get a degree and transfer. I mentioned that each school is different in size, from 15,000 to 66,000 annual headcount wise. Then I mentioned how each school has different completion and transfer rates, and that those rates are unfortunately lower for us, as Latinos.

After discussing the options, he chose to attend Santa Ana College (SAC). From there we reviewed the catalog, talked about the program of study, and what classes he wanted to talk both within the automotive tech and the GE-transfer pattern. I briefly covered the GE-transfer patterns, Plan A (Local CC), B (CSU), C (UC) and how they set students up on different pathways (Another piece can be written on transfer patterns, pathways, and articulation agreements, or just wait two years for my dissertation). After double checking, SAC was the school he wanted to attend, it had the program of interest, he was familiar with it, and had the potentially to wrestle for their team. We the choice made, we moved forward with applying. I have to say, as a community college research, this experience was context-building helping understand nuanced processes before a student actually steps foot on campus.

For example, one of the things I look at is the disparity between initial educational goals (stated on the application) and outcomes (certificate, AA, transfer). On the application, they give you 14!!! options as educational goals. When the question came up, I let my brother think about the choices before I asked him, “which one do you think reflects what you want to do at SAC.” Then he rationalized a few of them “well, I want to prepare for a new career, so maybe acquire job skills.” I asked, do others options fit better with your goals? He said well, I want technical training, with an associates, and to transfer…well that option wasn’t there, and as you can see below, the options overlap, but you can only select one. This process made me rethink my reliance on the educational goal data that comes directly from this step.


He completed the application, got information about the next steps. We then applied for the BOG waiver (financial aid) that covers tuition at community colleges. Once he got his student id, we started to review the assessment process at SAC. They use the MDTP, so we practiced study questions from Level 4 (Placement into Pre-Calculus) and Level 3 (Placement into College Algebra). We read that he could take both tests within the same week, but could only repeat the same test once per semester. The next few hours we spent on practicing Math and English… questions on linear expressions, reading comprehension, and polynomial equations. As we wrapped up the practice questions, he signed up for “MyMathTest” which is an online prep ran through pearson. On average we got about 75-80% of the questions right in the diagnostic, so he should be placed at college algebra, but the stake were low, there was no time limit, and no testing anxiety or intimidation present.

At the end of the day, we thought we had accomplished a good deal; my brother had reviewed his options, examined three programs offering similar coursework, and chose a school to enroll at. In addition, the first steps in financial aid were taken and we had practiced some math and English questions in anticipation for his assessment date (I hope he is still practicing!). Now it’s waiting for placement, from there he can enroll in summer school (3-6 units) and slowly transition back to near fulltime status (6-12).Since this is an on-going process, I’m hesitant to check up on him, but I know how important the next steps in matriculation are. For the most part, new policies (SB1456) require schools to be proactive with welcoming newly enrolled students with Assessment, Counseling, and Orientation.

I didn’t mean to write about this, at least not publicly, but I had mentioned this experience to Estela (my advisor) and she mentioned I should blog about it. And so I did, and it was helpful to reflect on this experience and how my research informs my practice. Through both my research and practice, I’ve developed better insight to help my brother, and others like him, those with aspirations of a bachelors but uncertain of the path given the complexities of higher education. I might post two more blogs, if my brother is cool with it, as we continue through the matriculation process. One about his experience around the assessment process itself, he’s signed up for a June 15th test date. Maybe a third one about the onboarding process, specifically the educational planning and counseling provided (which is what I’m currently researching).

Thanks for reading.

Time to do the work

Knowing that community colleges serve students who have been historically marginalized it is vital to understand state policies, institutional structures, and student dynamics that facilitate transfer success. For those seeking a bachelor’s degree, improving the transfer function is crucial in revitalizing access to a four-year degree while starting at a community college. Previous research on community college transfer has focused on macro-level issues such as the impact on transfer rates or the number of students who attain bachelors. Similarly, there has been an emphasis on using quantitative analyses to understand the impact of policy on community colleges and the likelihood of student transfer.

These approaches have contributed greatly to our understanding of community colleges, the transfer function, and student aspirations. I intentionally speak of race because of the issues in community college and the transfer function stem from racial-neutral policies and practices (Bensimon & Malcom, 2012). Dumas and Anyon (2006) add that many policies are created and implemented without any mention of race, yet they have “racially curious effects” impacting the students in adverse ways. In this sense, my efforts take a racialized approach to understanding transfer culture, transfer aspiration, and transfer reform, and ultimately the impact it has on students of color who attend community college. This is a reminder that ethnographers have an ever-increasing role to play in reframing dominant discourses about community college students, policy, and practice, particularly when these spaces are failing our black and brown community (Weis & Fine, 2004).


Time to do the work.

Nos Vemos en Esquipulas

My earliest memories as a child are with my grandfather. One of the first pictures I have is of him holding me at my baptism. Another memory is when he and I went to the LA sports arena to watch the WWF in 1988. I was about four; it was probably the first time I ever saw such a spectacle. I not only left with those memories, but also a replica WWF Championship Belt. Being who he was, a mechanic/tinkerer/inventor, he replaced the foam with leather, added a metal belt, and screwed in the “gold” plated plastic at the center, making this replica a reality. This belt has lasted 27 years.

A few months back, a returned the belt back to him. At this point the cancer was winning the battle and I knew I’d only enjoy a few more weeks with him. I told him, you are a fighter, a champion, you’ll win this match. It was a way to reconnect, to go full circle from being a young boy to a growing adult, still in inspired by the person my grandfather is and was. I say he was a tinkerer, because most days when I would visit he would be in his garage. Creating a new device to pull avocados from a 50 foot tree, fixing people’s broken electronics, and even repair people’s shoes. The last few years, he had spent his time in the garage building small “robots” from spare parts; blender motors, metal pipes, oil caps, ball bearings, etc. After a few years he had created over eight of these robots and put them on display within a plexiglass case, with the American flag in the background. He then had the idea to make them dance using magnets underneath the display case. I was always amazed with the cool thinks he thought up. In his ability to turn ideas into realities.

The last few months have been tough. They’ve been a slow goodbye. A realization that I’d lose my grandfather to cancer. Up until last week, these memories were real: the hugs, the stories, and the laughter. He was the patriarch; he was well respected by family and friends, always addressed as “Don Raul.” He is the reason why my family is in the United States; the first to risk his life and provided a better one for us. He’d tell me stories about his migration from Guatemala to Chicago back in the early 1970s. How after working for a while there, he connected with relatives in California and began to settle down in Anaheim. One by one, he would bring my grandma, uncles, and of course my mother.

He was a story teller, give him a topic and you’d have hours of history lessons, political discourse, and of course laughter. A few weeks before his passing, I knew I had to record this history; to capture his life and story. This interview, unlike the research ones I’ve conduct, was the hardest. This was late January. His doctors were ending any cancer treatment and transitioning to pain management. We talked for hours that day, about his health, his wishes after he passed, and his life both here and in Guatemala. I’m fortunate to have been able to record his life and have those conversations, just like the ones we shared over the last thirty years.

In our final recorded conversation, he said, “I’m going to get better, I’ll walk again, and take a final trip back to Guatemala.” So then we talked about how he would get there. As a bus driver, there was no other route than the roads for him; traveling from Anaheim, through Mexico, and into Guatemala. We spoke of every city and site we’d stop between here and there. He talked about making it all the way to Esquipulas. Esquipulas is a city in Guatemala, close to the El Salvador border. Famous as a religious site, it is a place where Central Americans and many others of the Catholic faith pilgrimage to the Basilica. Part of this story, we recapped his years as bus driver both for the public transit system and las Carmelitas Descalzos de Centroamérica. My grandfather talked about Esquipulas with fondness and the times he would take students, sisters, and other religious leaders from Guatemala City to Esquipulas for this pilgrimage.

I share this particularly story because it reminds me to never give up, that even when facing cancer and inevitably death, my grandfather still tried and hoped to defeat his illness and visit Esquipulas one more time. It’s a reminder of his strength, but also his journey from Guatemala to the United States. To remember the legacy of Don Raul and the opportunities afforded to me and my family through his sacrifice and foresight. As much as it pains me to know he has passed, and as the tears flow in writing this, I am happy. I rejoice in his memory, the lessons shared, and the character he instilled in me. My grandfather’s spirit lives with me and my family. The strength he shared is something I strive for. The dedication to family is something I’ll work towards. The ability to endure and improve opportunities for others is something I learned from him.

Although his story ends, I will always be thankful that mine began with his. As I say goodbye to my Grandfather, I embrace him and say, “Nos Vemos en Esquipulas.”

Observations from VRC on the transfer process

Anna is studying to become an elementary school teacher at Valley River College. Her friend Evelyn wants to be a criminal analyst like on “CSI.” Both are Latinas, second-year students, and graduated from the local high school. Evelyn plans to earn her associates degree first so that she can start working immediately before potentially transferring to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Anna wants to get her associates degree as well, but insists she will transfer to the local regional university to get her bachelor’s degree and credential to become a teacher. Anna came to Valley River College (VRC) because her older sister (by two years) attends. As our conversation unfolds, Anna shares, “I really haven’t thought about the whole transfer thing” or “how to get my bachelor’s.” Anna mentions that neither her sister nor her friends at VRC have transferred, yet. I follow up asking them if they know where to get transfer advice or support. Both mention the transfer center, but have not visited yet.

My conversation with Anna and Evelyn were held at one of the six green tables available in the inner-quad area of the Student Services Building. This area houses Admissions and Records, Counseling, Assessment Center, the Fiscal Office, Financial Aid, Career Center, Transfer Center, and Student Orientation. As we talk about educational goals and transfer pathways we are sitting 20 feet away from the transfer center’s doors. Inside the transfer center, there is a staff of three including a student worker, program assistant, and director. The walls of the center are filled with colorful posters, highlighting the colleges and universities across the country. Partly covering the walls are three bookshelves lined with brochures, fliers, and other information about transferring, applying, and getting financial aid. It is early November when I visit, only a few weeks away from the transfer application deadlines, and the staff are discussing upcoming workshops and classroom visits to remind students of the looming dates.

Walking out of the transfer center, the inner-quad area is busy with student traffic, as construction has temporarily closed down many of the paths to get through campus and limited the number of place places students can sit and eat. On this day there are over 40 students in the area, some waiting to be called into financial aid or the counseling center, a few eating lunch, and others like Anna and Evelyn just waiting until their next class starts . The stories of Anna and Evelyn are similar to the other students I spoke with at VRC. They are stories of students entering community college aspiring to attain their bachelor’s degree to become teachers, journalists, and mathematicians, but face numerous challenges to transfer out. These stories also run common with the 2.3 million students who are enrolled in community colleges throughout the state of California (CCCCO, 2014); a state where nearly three-fourths of all undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges and sixty percent aspire to obtain a degree or transfer, but less than twenty-five percent actualize that goal (IHELP, 2007; CPEC, 2014).

As I interview students, observe the transfer center, and develop a better sense of the campus, I reflect on my purpose for being there. Over the last year I have studied transfer reform policies that were enacted to ease the transfer process between the California Community College (CCC) and California State Universities (CSU) systems. My focus has been on examining the policy at the institutional level, looking at how practitioners (e. g., administrations, faculty, and staff) put the policy into practice. One of the priorities of the policy of interest, the Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act of 2010 (SB-1440), was creating an easier pathway to transfer for the top 25 majors. Early Childhood Education was one of those top majors which could benefit Anna who aspires to become an elementary school teacher and will need to transfer to a college that awards bachelor’s degrees and teaching credentials. Anna’s story is a reminder that although policies maybe well-intended, students cannot take advantage of a policy of which they are unaware.

Just the beginning of the writing process, but wanted to share. Let me know what you think.