8 August 2022

Bursting the Monocultural Bubble

Juan Madrid University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Hispanics, Blacks, and Native Americans are underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). We have heard that before. Despite much talk, and dedicated lines of funding, little progress has been made during the last 20 years to effectively increase the participation and representation of minorities in science.

As a result of the changing demographics of the United States, an ever growing section of the population is alienated from education and participation in science. The National Science Foundation anxiously, and often, declares that we are missing millions of minority students in our classrooms and our graduate programs. Ultimately our workforce is deprived of their talent and skills.

Hispanics are now the largest minority in the US, now at 19% of the total population. Hispanics constitute the largest section of the population in many states, including the most populous ones such as California. More than two thirds of Hispanics attend college or university at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). Many prominent institutions in our field are now HSIs. Think, for instance, of The University of California Santa Cruz and the University of Arizona.

With around 500 Hispanic Serving Institutions in the country, many of them among the best schools for physics and astronomy, where is the new generation of Hispanic astronomers? Why is the participation of minorities in STEM fields still lagging when compared to their share of their population? For many working in science education this might well be the million-dollar question.

College and universities become Hispanic Serving Institutions when 25% of their student body tick Hispanic on their enrollment forms. However, how they train and treat their Hispanic students is not regulated.

Here, at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), a new institution created by the merger of UT Pan-American and UT Brownsville, a group of faculty members are working hard to create bilingual and Spanish classes. UTRGV is one of the largest Hispanic Serving Universities in the country, with an enrollment of over 30,000 students. More than 94% of students are of Hispanic background. Over 80% of families speak Spanish at home in this region of south Texas, but only 1% of core classes are offered as bilingual or Spanish classes at UTRGV.

By creating bilingual classes in physics, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics (and in the humanities as well) Hispanic students will feel welcomed and at home. We are striving to create classes where the Hispanic culture is celebrated and is part of the classroom. Minority students should not feel that they need to leave their identity at the door when they attend university. We are hoping that we move away from cultural code switching and into classrooms that affirms the identity of Hispanic students.

In her essay “How to tame a wild tongue”, Mexican-American writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa recounts how she had to register for specific courses that were meant to erase her accent when speaking English at the University of Texas (Pan-American). This was effectively a Hispanic Serving Institution erasing the Hispanic identity of their students and instilling shame on who they are. As educators we all know that fostering confidence in our students is as important as teaching technical skills. As astronomers, we know too well the importance of self-assurance when facing critical referee reports or addressing antagonistic questions during oral presentations. Faith in one-self is perhaps the one key trait of a successful scientist. Today, we still face reticence from many of our colleagues when we work towards building a bilingual university but we hope that the days when we offered classes that erased hispanic accents and identities are gone forever.

The benefits of bilingualism are many. At an individual level, bilingualism seems to delay the onset of dementia, among many other cognitive benefits. The power of a multicultural and multilingual society was demonstrated during World War II when Native American code talkers were an essential part of a successful war effort. Navajo, Cherokee, Comanche, and over a dozen Native American communities were able to secretly communicate over radio frequencies largely intercepted by Nazi Germany. Our diversity is our strength. The Native American languages that helped the Allies win WWII were the same languages that were targeted for eradication by the education system designed by local and federal entities.

Students need role models with whom they can identify themselves to succeed. We know that. Hispanic Serving Institutions have a lot to learn about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The African American community went through the civil rights struggle that left a legacy of collective pride, awareness of their rights and identity at a level that the Hispanic community does not have.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities unapologetically celebrate their black identity all while being open and welcoming to the wider population. HBCUs are led by black presidents and have black faculty that serve as role models for their students. On the other hand, we still have astronomy departments at HSIs like the one at the University of Texas at Austin without a single Hispanic within their tenured faculty. Texas is home to the second largest Hispanic population in the country (more than 11.5 million), second only to California.

Within the astronomical community, Dara Norman, Deputy Director of the Community Science and Data Center at the NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory and a Legacy Fellow of the AAS, has long advocated for tying funding streams to solid metrics on equitable representation within organizations. We resolutely echo her proposal. Why would universities that deny Hispanics of role models get awarded funding under HSI schemes?

We will only have a new generation of minority astronomers when our educational approach completely shifts from one that denies their identity to one that celebrates it. It is time for our higher education institutions to welcome their minority students into a classroom where they can bring their entire cultural and linguistic background. Only then, we will be able to harvest the full potential that the United States has in science.