UW Assistant Professor Connects with Teton County Latina Students

August 21, 2013

When 10 Latina high school students from Teton County visited Aurora Chang’s “Diversity and the Politics of Schooling” class last fall at the University of Wyoming, no one could have predicted that what was expected to be a one-time interaction would lead to an ongoing relationship with one goal in mind: the girls’ academic success.

The group, College-Bound Latinas (CBL), was in the middle of a visit to the UW campus, getting a taste of college life. CBL co-founders Lety Liera, director of the local Head Start program, and Isabel Zumel, assistant director of the Teton County Library, offered a five-year commitment (freshman year of high school through the first year of college) to any young woman willing to do the work necessary to succeed.

Chang, UW educational studies assistant professor, not only welcomed the student visitors to her class, she placed them at the center of the learning experience for the day.

“I put them on the spot,” she says. “I said, ‘Tell them (the UW students) what your experience has been in high school and what your teachers are like.’”

What unfolded was a rich learning experience for everyone in the room.

“It was fantastic,” Chang recalls. “The undergraduates were so engaged and so respectful of the students’ experiences. It was a very cross-cultural exchange.”

Chang’s in- and out-of-class interactions with the group during its brief visit sparked something unexpected: a connection not only to her research interests, but to her personal story.

“When I met the girls, and when I met Lety and Isabel, we just had chemistry together,” she says.

By early summer, Chang was part of the team leading the first Emerging Latina Scholars Intensive Writing Institute. Over five days, Chang immersed the girls in a demanding writing process, designed with a final product in mind: a 10- to 12-page personal biography. Their days were filled with varied writing activities; their nights were spent working on drafts of their bios. They also read and analyzed college-level articles, including Chang’s Harvard Education Review essay describing her journey from undocumented child from Guatemala with no papers to doctoral-credentialed academic regularly creating papers.

Chang’s high expectations challenged the girls from the beginning. Their first writing samples fell far short of college-level writing, and Chang was up front in telling them so. That ran counter to what teachers had told them over the years.

“They all said they’d never had anyone tell us, ‘This isn’t good enough,’” Chang says. “That was the kick that they needed.”

“The girls have really responded well to it -- not always happily, but I think they understand the overall goal,” she adds. “I told the girls, ‘It doesn’t matter if you like me. What’s important to me is that you all rise to the level of your highest potential. If you hate me through that process, it’s fine with me. It’s all about you succeeding. Whatever it takes to get you there is what we will do.’”

At the end of the week, each participant had a completed biography. They also had a commitment from Chang to continue the work. While their peers were enjoying summer break, CBL participants, their sponsors and Chang met electronically every Monday to work on assignments covering a range of writing types.

The impact on their writing ability already is obvious, but the commitment extends beyond academic skills.

“It’s no accident that the caring that’s happening toward the girls is also a huge motivator,” Chang says. “They see our sacrifice (Aurora, Lety and Isabel). They see our sincerity. Our stories echo with them and vice versa.”

Chang’s work with CBL reinforces what she already knows to be true: that teachers must be aware of their own biases, especially those that result in lower expectations for minority students.

“We can inspire hope in the girls, we can give them tools and techniques,” she says. “But the biggest impact is going to be with the teachers, because it will go beyond these 10 girls.”

Chang regularly shares this message with her UW College of Education students, as they begin to prepare for their own classroom teaching experiences. Her experiences working with the CBL cohort -- and plans to bring the girls and their experiences into Chang’s college classes in the future -- enrich her ability to share that message with future educators.

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