Achieving Educational Success Through Familia, Comunidad, y Cultura - Dr. Ruth M. López

My father did not understand why I left home to get a degree he had never heard of. There were plenty of college options in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. Later, he didn’t understand why I decided to go away even farther to get a PhD. But I would often remind him that I was doing this because of how he and my mom taught me to be proud of my cultura and develop myself to be able to give back to my community. My familia and cultura play a central role in my academic and professional aspirations. I have vivid memories as a teenager riding in the car with my mom on the way to one of her cleaning jobs and her in disbelief that I was accomplishing things she could never dream of in El Salvador. In high school, I was still very shy and hadn’t contemplated the idea of pursuing a doctorate yet. However, I understood the value and privilege of education as a daughter of immigrants. Even as a college student, I was not told to consider a graduate degree, but work experiences and belonging to high school and college campus clubs made a world of a difference for me. Such experiences taught me about leadership, self-confidence, and social issues that unfairly affect so many students and their families. I was surrounded by other like-minded students who cared about school and who were trying to figure out their greater purpose, just like me. These programs were uplifting, supportive, and led me to amazing accomplishments that I am very proud of as a Chicana, Latina, Woman of Color, y hija de inmigrantes.

Looking back, I realize that high school was a very important beginning for me. Initially, I was not pushing myself past my comfort zones socially and academically. However, my experiences in high school began to change when I decided to apply to a rigorous Advanced Science Magnet in the 10th grade. I also joined the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Youth Council and eventually helped grow the council to the largest in the country. LULAC Youth Council was about developing school events, contributing to the community, and educational attainment. I looked forward to going to school because I was having fun planning events and being part of a community that was all about self and community empowerment. I also participated in leadership programs with the National Hispanic Institute starting the summer after 10th grade. I was active in these programs for a number of years and they exposed me to positive Latinx role models and so many college campuses, which was life-changing to me as a first-generation student and daughter of immigrants. I also took several advanced classes in high school. These courses were challenging, but I would say that tutoring and peer support helped me get through really tough courses.

I believe that mindset is a very important aspect to challenging yourself, growth, and opportunity. One memory I have where my mindset helped me is that in 11th grade, we were told about the PSAT exam and that if we did well, we could qualify for National Merit scholarships. I knew my parents would not be able to support me financially to attend college, and so I checked out a book to study and take practice tests a few weeks before the big exam. I had never done anything like that before. I was nervous but I went into the test with a sense of confidence and hope. I took the exam hoping that it would lead to college and scholarship opportunities. A few months later, I was named as a finalist for a special scholarship program they had for Latinx students across the nation who scored high on the test. This later translated into $12,000 in scholarships for my undergraduate education. My initiative paid off in more than one way. I felt confident and the scholarship was an added bonus that eased the stress of paying for college. During high school, I knew I was going to be a college student one day because I was surrounded by teachers and students who often talked about life after high school. In addition, a college education was always an important goal in my home. My family would often talk about how I was going to be a doctor one day. But planning for college was tough for me. Although it all worked out, I think I had too much going on during my senior year. Aside from academic and social activities, I was also working part-time.

I think one thing I did wrong in college was to go into it very confidently given that I had taken so many Advanced Placement classes in high school and was told in many ways that I was ready for college. I made the mistake of thinking this meant it would come easy to me. Being told I was ready was good in the sense that it was an asset-based way to start initial college experiences. So many people around me knew I could do this. However, what was left out of the narrative was that I came from an under resourced community and schools, and I needed a lot of support. I think the mentality that I was exceptional in some ways, made me ignore or push away some of the supports that I now know I needed. Looking back, I realize how important it is to ask for help. There were so many resources that were available to me. I was only able to find this out once I started accepting the support. Being in a such a new environment and at such a young age is scary, but I think this example shows some of my mindset even today. I listen to the advice people share and I run with it. And as a way to pay it forward, I try to share these types of resources with others. Eventually awareness of programs and resources made my college experiences fun and supportive. I am so grateful for the programs geared towards first-generation college I was placed in at The University of Texas at Austin, such as Longhorn Scholars.

In college, I also became a student activist and joined a group called Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan(MEChA) and being surrounded by other young folks learning about our cultura and working to engage in the greater community at that time gave me a sense of purpose. I also followed my passion and dedication to my community and majored in Mexican American Studies (Ethnic Studies) and Spanish (double major). I deeply believe in an education that is culturally relevant, and these academic programs offered that to me. I was enjoying my college experiences, but hadn’t considered the idea of pursuing a PhD. After earning my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Houston to work for a UT-Austin college outreach program called University Outreach Center. I served many middle and high schools in the Houston Independent School District. I did this for four years and towards the end of those years, I felt ill equipped to support my students. I was finding that I could support them better if 1) I had training as a social worker or as a mental health provider, or 2) I was addressing macro issues affecting their lives such as policy. I was aware of inequities they faced such as immigration issues---so many of my students were undocumented and at that time although they had access to in-state tuition rates, so many of them were not aware of this. I thought that by pursuing a graduate degree, I could really focus on how to make policy change to benefit our most vulnerable community members. Then a simple question was posed to me unexpectedly. This question significantly changed my life trajectory forever.

I was talking to some of my high school students, who asked me, “how far are you going to go, miss?” I felt like they saw me at that moment, and believed in me more than I was believing in myself. And if I was telling them to go as far as they could in their education, why was I not telling myself the same? This was the very first time I contemplated pursuing a graduate degree. My husband was getting his masters at the University of Houston, and he showed me that this was possible and helped guide me. One thing he did was help me prepare an e-mail to a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and I told her that I wanted to work full-time and attend school part-time (so I could work to pay for it) to earn my master’s degree. Dr. Michele Moses (my future co-advisor) changed my life when she called my cell phone and left a message that given my accomplishments, I should pursue a PhD and there were ways to pay for it. I was also accepted to a masters in Social Work program, but ultimately decided to move to Colorado to pursue my PhD. My husband also pursued his PhD there in Integrative Physiology. He started a year before me and in the year before I applied to the PhD program, I studied for the GRE exam, just like I had studied for the PSAT almost 10 years before. I was accepted to the PhD program and received full funding through a fellowship program called the Ofelia Miramontes Doctoral Scholars Program for education doctoral students with research interests focused on educational equity and cultural diversity. We left Houston never having been to Colorado, sold our house and our cars, and 12 years later, we’re back in Houston as faculty at the University of Houston and with two children, Marcelo and Cecilia.

My PhD was challenging, but also amazing in many ways. I loved the community of friends I made and my professors. They all pushed my thinking around social justice issues and education, and I finally had time to slow down and think about the education disparities I witnessed not only in working in schools, but also in my own upbringing. Today, I am still very close to the friends I made there and many of them are scholars across the country. We push each other’s’ thinking and help each other continue growing as individuals and scholars. During graduate school I also got tapped into a broader network of Latinx scholars as a graduate fellow through the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE), and given that there are so few of us pursuing PhD programs, this really meant a lot to me.

One of the most amazing things to happen to me while I was in graduate school was becoming a mother, as I was wrapping up coursework and starting my dissertation. My classmates/friends threw me an amazing baby shower attended by some of my faculty even, and they showered us with love and support. I had fears of course, but I was never made to feel that becoming a mother and a doctor were in opposition to each other. Throughout high school and up until the present, imposter syndrome has been a real challenge for me. These supportive communities have always reminded me I have what it takes to be here, and that I should be here. Such support has led to where I am today.

Currently, I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Houston. I teach doctoral students who are aspiring district administrators and who serve in many of the communities I worked in as a college outreach counselor. I am also proud to serve as the faculty partner for a Latina mentoring program at the University of Houston called Las Comadres Latina Mentoring program. It serves over 70 students. Latinas are the largest undergraduate student group at the University of Houston with 19% of all students coming from this group. Yet, we are underrepresented as upper level administrators and as faculty. My goal is to work to increase our representation at all levels. I also remain unapologetically committed to working for and with the undocumented community—families and students alike. My parents were undocumented (my mom is from El Salvador and my dad from Mexico), they migrated to the United States separately as teenagers during the 1970’s, and were able to become residents through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Immigration justice has been a part of my life since I was born and it is now part of my scholarship too.

In my educational trajectory, I have had many victories along the way, but one stands out. The sweetest victory has been being able to come back to my community, the Latinx community, and having the opportunity to be the best role model I can be. I love teaching at an institution that is 36% Latinx and living in a predominately and historically Mexican-American Community, the East End of Houston. I love to speak at my son’s elementary school (in our community) for college & career day every year, and speaking to young children who are like me Mexican and Salvadoran, and then hearing them say that they want to go to college—or even become a professor like me, that is my victory.