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Why Izzie Didn’t Go to College: Choosing Work Over College as Latina Feminism

by Linda Harklau - 2013

Background/Context: Explanations for the relatively low numbers of Latinas pursuing higher education have tended to focus on socialization into traditional gender roles. However, recent scholarship has challenged this view, suggesting that gender roles—particularly among recent immigrants—are mutable and subject to constant renegotiation.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article suggests that forgoing college, far from representing a retreat into traditional women’s roles, might in some cases represent emergent feminism and a means for Latina immigrants to contest and reshape those roles.

Setting: A new Latino diaspora community in the rural southeastern United States.

Research Design: Longitudinal qualitative case study of an adolescent immigrant Latina.

Findings/Results: Both risk factors and facilitative factors previously identified by research as contributing to Latino/a college enrollment were found to be present in the case study student’s background. The article argues, however, that some gender-specific factors often used to explain Latina school-leaving and low academic ambitions, such as close association with teenage mothers and responsibilities for household chores and child care, served instead as deterrents for this Latina adolescent from taking traditional gender roles. On the other hand, the article argues that the association between higher education and increased independence and a break from traditional gender roles that is often assumed for American-born women did not hold for a working-class Latina. Rather, her wage-earning represented a better position from which to challenge traditional gender roles within her family.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This case study confirms the heterogeneity and diversity to be found in the individual schooling paths of Latino/a immigrant youth, and thus the value of close examination of the protracted and as yet little understood process through which Latinas/os make the decision to pursue or forgo higher education over the course of high school. The article lends support to arguments in recent scholarship suggesting the mutability of gender roles in immigrant communities. It suggests that new attention be paid in research and college recruitment programs to growing evidence of gender-specific factors at work in Latino/a immigrant students’ academic achievement and college-going decisions.

Latinos/as currently account for over 20% of school-age children in the United States (Aud et al., 2011). Between 1989 and 2009, the percentage of Hispanic students in U.S. schools doubled (Aud et al., 2011), and they remain the fastest growing group in the nation’s schools (Fry & Gonzales, 2008). Yet, in a brewing educational crisis, Latino/a youth are also more likely than average to leave the educational pipeline early. They experience disproportionate high school dropout rates and are less likely than average to enroll in college (Aud, Fox, & KewalRamani, 2010). Unsurprisingly, then, there is a prodigious amount of research on Latinos/as’ academic performance, and a long list of risk factors have been proposed as contributing to underachievement. Only in recent years, however, have scholars looked at gender as a significant issue in Latino/a achievement and college enrollment (Ginorio & Huston, 2001; Zambrana & Zoppi, 2002). Although women overall enroll in college in higher proportion than men, Latinas remain less likely than White, Black, or Asian American women to enroll in college (Fry, 2009). Explanations for the relatively low numbers of Latinas pursuing higher education have tended to focus on socialization into traditional gender roles (Ginorio & Huston). From this perspective, Latinas are diverted from higher education by taking primary roles in the home as wives and mothers. However, recent feminist scholarship has challenged this view, suggesting that gender roles—particularly among recent immigrants—are mutable and subject to constant renegotiation (e.g., Toro-Morn, 2008).

This article suggests that forgoing college, far from representing a retreat into traditional women’s roles, might in some cases represent emergent feminism and a means of contesting and remaking those roles. It presents data taken from a 5 1/2-year-long study addressing the question, What factors over time contribute to high school completion and college enrollment for academically talented Latino/a youth in one southeastern new Latino diaspora community? Using the case of one academically gifted Latina youth in this community, the study illustrates how aspects of college often assumed to be liberating and empowering to women may not be so for a working-class immigrant youth. Conversely, the results suggest that factors typically associated with socialization into traditional gender roles might in some cases actually serve as deterrents to taking on those roles. In all, the article argues that the gender-related “push” and “pull” factors conventionally associated with pursuing or forgoing college play out in complex and unexpected ways in the actual decision process of a Latina. The final sections of the article consider potential implications of this case for Latina college recruitment.


Latinos/as represent a rapidly growing proportion of the school-age population in the United States. Whereas they constituted only 5% of youth under age 18 in 1970 (Fry, 2009), that proportion has risen to 22% at present (Aud et al., 2011) and is projected to reach 35% by 2050 (Passel & Cohn, 2008). College-going rates for this increasingly prominent demographic group, although rising, remain relatively low (Fry, 2011). Whereas 36% of 18- to 24-year-olds overall in the United States enroll in college, only 22%–23% of Latina/o youth matriculate (Dolan). Their enrollment rate is lower than White, Asian American, or Black peers (Fry, 2011). First-generation Latinos/as have even poorer high school graduation and college enrollment rates than U.S.-born students (Aud et al., 2011).

At the same time that Latina/o youth become an increasing proportion of the nation’s schools and labor force, the U.S. economy is changing, and jobs that do not require postsecondary education are diminishing (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). In the current economic downturn, individuals with college degrees are much less likely to be unemployed than those without (Leonhardt, 2011). As a highly educated workforce becomes increasingly vital to the future vitality of American society and the individual well-being of its citizenry, there is a corresponding urgent need to get more Latinos/as into higher education.

Research identifies a plethora of reasons for low academic achievement among Latinas/os. Several school-based factors are particularly relevant in this context. One is Latinos/as’ disproportionate enrollment in underresourced and poorly performing schools (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Zambrana & Zoppi, 2002). In 2005–2006, 34% of Hispanic students were enrolled in schools with the highest measure of poverty, whereas only 4% of White and 10% of Asian/Pacific Islander students were (Dolan, 2009). Latinos/as are also more likely than average to attend schools that do not offer high-level college preparatory coursework (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). Scholars have also found that Latinas/os often face a lack of support or encouragement for college-going from high school educators (see, e.g., Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Valenzuela, 1999). A final factor pertinent to this study is that school tracking systems disproportionately steer Latinas/os—particularly first-generation immigrants—into non-college-preparatory coursework (Callahan, 2005), and Latinos/as take proportionately fewer advanced science and math classes than White peers (Dolan).

Research has also suggested family and community reasons for low Latina/o college enrollment. A notable factor in the context of this study is immigrant Latinos/as’ frequent lack of family and community experience with and information about college-going (Lindholm, 2006; Plunkett & Bámaca-Gómez, 2003). Latino immigrant parents are more likely than average to come from low educational backgrounds (Gándara & Contreras, 2009, p. 29; Lindholm; Plunkett & Bámaca-Gómez) and thus may possess very little knowledge to guide their children into higher education (Tornatzky, Cutler, & Lee, 2002). Research also suggests that Latinas/os can be hampered in their college ambitions by a lack of college-going siblings and peers to serve as role models and mentors (Gándara, 1995; Gándara & Contreras; Ginorio & Huston, 2001; Hossler, Schmit, & Vesper, 1999). It further suggests that Latino/a immigrant families who come from a relatively disadvantaged socioeconomic background may face an uphill struggle in achieving social mobility through education in the United States (Beattie, 2002; Bloom, 2007; Kao & Tienda, 1995; Louie, 2005; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Rumbaut, 2005; Zambrana & Zoppi, 2002; Zarete & Gallimore, 2005). Latina/o immigrants are also less likely than White students to participate in extracurricular activities in high school, a trait associated with higher achievement (Gándara & Contreras).

Expectations about college-going experiences are also different in immigrant families than in U.S.-born students’ families. While U.S. scholarship and policy has tended to take traditional middle-class students’ experiences in four-year residential colleges as its archetype or standard, Latina/o students are more likely to choose to attend local community colleges instead of four-year residential colleges (Bloom, 2007; Fry, 2011). They are also more likely to work while in college. For immigrant Latinos/as, then, college frequently means being a commuter student who juggles commitments of studies, work, and home life (see, e.g., Sy, 2006). We know that such differences have a negative effect on Latino/a immigrant college completion rates (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). However, we have an inadequate understanding of whether and how they might affect immigrant students’ willingness to enroll in college in the first place.

Scholars suggest that these negative factors in Latina/o immigrant students’ backgrounds can be somewhat mitigated by facilitative factors. For example, immigrant families tend to have high levels of optimism and motivation for academic achievement (Kao & Tienda, 1995; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). Scholars further suggest that to the extent that immigrant students, families, and communities can foster strong ethnic attachments that are accompanied by positive outlooks on schooling—a phenomenon variously termed “accommodation without assimilation” (Davidson, 1996; Gibson, 1988) or “selective acculturation” (Portes & Rumbaut)—they can counter their own lack of social capital and structural inequalities and discrimination in U.S. schools. Scholars have also argued that due consideration must be given to within-group and individual variation (Louie, 2005; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco). Individuals vary, for example, in their degree of self-efficacy and persistence (Gándara, 1995; Solberg, Carlstrom, Howard, & Jones, 2007). Latinas also vary in the strength and composition of their in-group social network at school, a characteristic associated with academic achievement and college-going (Antrop-González, Vélez, & Garrett, 2008; Barajas & Pierce, 2001; Riegle-Crumb & Callahan, 2009). Students also vary individually in levels of family stability, support, and monitoring, factors strongly linked with Latino/a academic achievement (Antrop-González et al.; Plunkett & Bámaca-Gómez, 2003; Portes & Rumbaut; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco) and college-going (Gándara, 1995). Students’ level of English proficiency and degree of bilingualism has also been associated with academic achievement (Callahan, 2007/2008; Gándara & Contreras, 2009; Portes & Rumbaut; Ruiz de Velasco & Fix, 2000).

There remains comparatively little research that specifically addresses the role of gender and gender roles in Latina school trajectories (Alfaro, Umaña-Taylor, Gonzales-Backen, Bámaca, & Zeiders, 2009; Ginorio & Huston, 2001; Riegle-Crumb & Callahan, 2009; Zambrana & Zoppi, 2002). Although gender-related phenomena have been noted in many major studies and models of immigrant academic achievement (see, e.g., Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001; Valenzuela, 1999), they nonetheless tend to be treated parenthetically. Although males outnumbered females in high school graduation and college enrollment across the board until the late 1980s, that trend has since reversed (Aud et al., 2011). Hence, in recent years, the focus has tended to fall on the relative underenrollment of Latinos, hypothesized to be the combined result of a learning style that is mismatched with classroom expectations and a largely White female teaching workforce, gender-differentiated experiences with and perceptions of discrimination, cultural expectations that Latinos will enter the workforce early, and males’ much higher rates of military enlistment and incarceration (Alfaro et al.; Rumbaut, 2005; Sáenz & Ponjuan, 2009; Suárez-Orozco & Qin-Hilliard, 2004). Yet Latinas are hardly thriving in higher education. Latinas continue to have among the lowest proportions of high school graduates when compared with other racial and ethnic groups (Zambrana & Zoppi). In college enrollment, Latina high school graduates continue to lag behind White female graduates (44% to 54%; Fry, 2009) and White male graduates (48%), and they are less likely to complete a four-year college degree (Ginorio & Huston). Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) young adult Latinas in 2007 were neither in school nor in the workforce, a proportion that is rivaled only by that of young Black men (16%; Fry).

Various gender specific-reasons have been proposed for the low academic achievement of Latinas. Sometimes citing self-effacing cultural values associated with marianismo, both research and popular images of Latina adolescents have depicted them as especially lacking in self-esteem (e.g., American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1992; Gil & Vazquez, 1996; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Turner, Kaplan, & Badger, 2006), or as passive or submissive at school (Gushue & Whitson, 2006). Many researchers have cited the deleterious influence of early marriage (Oropesa & Landale, 2004) and motherhood (Berry, Shillington, Peak, & Hohman, 2000; Fry, 2009; Rumbaut, 2005). Fifty-three percent of Latina teens get pregnant before age 20, twice the national average, and 69% of Latina teenage mothers drop out of high school (Sabatiuk & Flores, 2009). Some scholars posit a cultural value system that presumes women will not be in the workforce and thus require less education (Ginorio & Huston, 2001). Research has also pointed to Latina socialization into traditional sex roles at home (Denner & Dunbar, 2004; Gushue & Whitson; Pavich, 1986; Raffaelli & Ontai, 2004; Yowell, 2000), in school (Meador, 2005; Rolón-Dow, 2004), and in society (Rivadeneyra & Ward, 2005). From this perspective, low educational aspirations and attainment among Latinas are a result of socialization and apprenticeship into traditional gendered household roles (Williams, Alvarez, & Hauck, 2002). This ultimately results in Latinas’ taking traditional roles in the private sphere of casa (home; Toro-Morn, 2008) and hogar (hearth; Villenas & Moreno, 2001) rather than pursuing a career and wage-earning in the world outside their families.

There may have been a time in the past when the roles of Latinas were indeed “limited to the home environment. They were viewed as daughters, mothers, wives, and nothing more” (González, Jovel, & Stoner, 2004, p. 17). Yet feminist scholars have contended that scholarly and popular literature falls too easily into stereotypical notions of Latinas/os as “steeped in traditional gender roles with a rigid division of labor” and a vision of these roles as “frozen in time” (Toro-Morn, 2008, p. 278). Scholarship over the past two decades has made it clear that gender and gender roles are unstable and subject to constant resistance, negotiation, and revision (Pérez, 1999; Villenas & Moreno, 2001). Furthermore, recent scholarship suggests that the immigration process destabilizes gender roles (Parrado & Flippen, 2005) and simultaneously “reinforces and challenges patriarchy in its multiple forms” (Pessar, 1999, p. 577) in complex ways.

Although academic achievement among Latinas has been associated with efforts to achieve greater gender parity in status and power (see, e.g., Cammarota, 2004), and non-college-going has typically been attributed to socialization into traditional class and gender roles, this article presents a case suggesting that just the opposite can sometimes be the case. Drawing on recent scholarship emphasizing Latina agency that shows how new Latina/o immigrants adapt and reconstruct gendered divisions of labor, this article argues that choosing not to go to college, far from being a retreat into domestic submissiveness, can be a feminist act and an adaptive immigrant response to a new sociocultural context. It further argues that college-going might have a considerably different meaning in terms of adulthood and autonomy for a working-class immigrant Latina than it would for youth of the U.S. middle class. Based on these findings, the article suggests implications for further research on gender and the academic pipeline for Latinas/os. It also considers possible implications for gendered college recruitment strategies, particularly in new immigrant settlement areas.


The study addressed the question of what factors contribute over time to high school completion and college enrollment for one academically talented Latino/a youth in a southeastern new Latino diaspora community. A longitudinal qualitative case study was the research vehicle.

Most work on college access has relied on large-scale demographic trends and comparisons of Latinos/as with other ethnic groups (Zarete & Gallimore, 2005). Less has focused on the process through which individual Latinas/os make the decision to attend or forgo college (although see Gándara, 1995). Even less has looked at the effects of gender on college access. Although large-scale studies can provide broad overviews of college-going patterns, they nevertheless leave significant gaps in our understanding of how individual Latinas fare in the college-going decision process (Zarete & Gallimore). There is a growing consensus that multiple methodologies must be brought to the study of adolescent immigrant adaptation (see, e.g., Suárez-Orozco, Pimentel, & Martin, 2009). In-depth longitudinal case studies can be used to question previously hypothesized relationships and to suggest new factors and processes that might need to be considered by researchers working on a broader scale. They also serve to explore within-group variability and remind us how risk and facilitative factors identified in broad scale work are always mediated by individual experience.


Isabella, the subject of this article, was part of a larger study of 51 first-generation Latina/o immigrant students in one rapidly growing “new Latino diaspora” community (Hamann, Wortham, & Murillo, 2002) in the southeastern United States. Latino/a educational experiences in new immigrant communities like this rural Piedmont Appalachian foothill setting are as yet little studied and understood. Such communities present unique features that are unlike those in traditional immigrant settlement areas (Kochhar, Suro, & Tafoya, 2005). For one, the Piedmont has little history of in-migration and until quite recently has been characterized by a highly stable, predominantly White and poor population (Kochhar et al.). However, beginning in the late 1980s, Latina/o immigrants were recruited to the area to work in poultry processing, carpet mills, and other industries. Between 1990 and 2000, driven by a thriving Sun Belt economy, the population in the area grew 15%–25% overall, and the Latino/a population grew by over 700% (Kochhar et al.). It is not only the rapidity of the population increase that makes the Southeast unique but also that the newcomers are predominantly foreign-born (Kochhar et al.). The vast majority (over 80%) of Latinas/os in the community that was the subject of this study were of Mexican heritage (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).

With this context as its backdrop, case study participants were recruited from a summer program at a local community college whose purpose was to identify potentially college-bound rising eighth graders from underrepresented groups and boost their academic achievement and college aspirations. Cases were selected from lists of participating students who identified as Hispanic2 at each of the program’s six participating middle schools. One student from each school was then selected at random to follow through the rest of middle and high school. Initially, the intent was to document factors leading to academic success in this new Latino diaspora community; however, by the end of the 5 1/2-year-long study, 1 student had dropped out, and only 2 of the remaining 4 had enrolled in college. Accordingly, data analysis centered on explaining how even Latina/o students specifically identified as academically promising in this community leave the college pipeline. Although there were commonalities among students’ experiences, more compelling was how factors in each of their backgrounds created unique academic paths and decision-making processes. The present analysis focuses on one such unique path, that of Isabella, whose experiences highlight the role of gender and gender roles in a first-generation Latina’s college-going decision.

The community in which Isabella’s family had settled was predominantly low income, with per capita annual income 17% lower than the state average and almost 25% lower than the national average (Georgia Department of Community Affairs, 2009). The county’s single high school, with 1,600 students, was 86% White, 2% Black, and 3% Asian (the result of earlier immigrant labor recruitment in the 1980s). Although the Latino population in the district had grown exponentially in the 1990s, their overall numbers remained at only 8% (Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, State of Georgia, 2004). High rates of rural poverty were also reflected in the fact that 54% of the students at Isabella’s middle school and 23% of the students at her high school were eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Southeastern U.S. high school graduation rates are well below the national average, and in Georgia at the time of the study, only 43% of Latinas graduated from high school (Education Week, 2006), much less enrolled in college. The high school completion rate at Isabella’s school was even more grim, with only 32% of Latina/o students graduating (Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, State of Georgia, 2004). Educational levels in the county as a whole were also lower than the rest of Georgia or the nation (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Almost 30% of adults had not completed high school, and less than 10% had a college degree (Housing and Demographics Research Center, 2009). Moreover, the vast majority (82%) of adult Latino/a immigrants in the area had not finished high school (Kochhar et al., 2005, p. 11). This presents a distinct contrast with traditional immigrant settlement areas such as California or New York, where only 39% of adult immigrants are not high school educated. Overall, then, Latina/o youth growing up in this community had relatively few role models or mentors for high school completion or college enrollment in either the immigrant Latino community or the broader population.

The reception of Latino/a students in Izzie’s schools was mixed. As in any community and school, there was a cadre of dedicated, knowledgeable, and caring educators whom Latina/o students like Izzie could turn to in order to help them navigate the schools. Because race in the Southeast has traditionally been cast in a Black and White binary, and there is no established history of a Latino presence or anti-Latino discrimination (Hamann et al., 2002), students’ status as a racialized minority group was perhaps more ambiguous and in flux than in traditional Latino settlement areas. Nevertheless, the study took place at a time of increasing anti-Latino/a immigrant sentiment both nationally and statewide, and even educators themselves characterized some of their coworkers as “rednecks” (Colomer & Harklau, 2009) who were ignorant about or hostile to the newcomers. Researcher field notes from school visits noted that upper-track classes and school-sponsored extracurricular activities remained dominated by a small group of White elite students.

Isabella was born in a small village in Guanajuato. Her village, like many others in rural Mexico (Durand, Massey, & Zenteno, 2001), had a long history of migration to the United States for work. Her grandfather had been in the Bracero program, and her father had likewise gone to the United States to work when she was a baby. He gained permanent resident status, and the family moved to the United States when Isabella was 3 years old. They moved from Arizona to a rural community in north Georgia when she was in third grade and had resided there since. Isabella was the third of six children and the oldest daughter. Many in the local Latino community were from the same village, and Isabella told me that she was distantly related to many of the Mexican background students at her high school. There was considerable communication and travel back and forth between Georgia and the village. Isabella’s first trip took place in her sophomore year of high school, when her quinceañera was held there. She made two subsequent trips while in high school. This research followed Isabella—or Izzie, as she preferred to be called at school—from the middle of eighth grade through her high school graduation.


Like other work that has productively used a qualitative case study approach in recent years (e.g., Valdés, 2001; Valenzuela, 1999; Villenas, 2002), this study used open-ended interviews to uncover the often tacit, taken-for-granted assumptions that individuals share with others in their sociocultural worlds and that they draw on in interacting with others. Longitudinal case studies are useful precisely because they are “naturalistic sagas of individual experience” (Crawford & Brunner, 1998) that are missing from large-scale studies of Latino/a student educational outcomes. They provide narratives that can connect with readers in a more direct and sometimes emotional fashion. The longitudinal nature of the study and its prolonged focus on single individuals resulted in portraits of human experience in all its complexities and contradictions and can provide new insights that might not be arrived at through large-scale studies of educational outcomes or policies alone.

This study drew primarily on 20- to 90-minute open-ended interviews conducted at 3- to 4-week intervals over the school years of the study. The researcher interviewed Isabella 41 times between January 2001, when she was in the middle of eighth grade, and December 2005, when she was about to graduate from high school. Interviewing is perhaps the most widely used methodology in qualitative inquiry (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995). A major strength of the longitudinal case study methodology used in this study is the ability to forge long-term relationships with informants that foster trust and confidence (Harklau, 2008) and mitigate the adult interviewer–adolescent interviewee power differential (Eder & Fingerson, 2003). Through its iterative, long-term questioning, the approach builds in checks about the consistency of participants’ reported experiences and perceptions. The approach also allows a unique window into ongoing processes of student identity formation and school achievement. The underlying assumption in interview studies is that “Discourse, rather than other kinds of human activities or behavior, is . . . the best available window into cultural understanding and the way that these are negotiated by individuals” (Quinn, 2005, p. 3).

Interviews took place during the school day in school conference rooms. At every interview, Izzie was asked to talk about classroom routines, assignments, and grades. Other questions were based on issues identified in the literature, student-initiated topics, or topics that had come up in interviews with other case study students. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. To augment interview findings, Izzie was also asked to supply samples of schoolwork. The researcher also interviewed a middle school ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) teacher who was well acquainted with the area’s Latino community and a friend of Izzie’s family, and her high school counselor. Isabella’s classes were observed for 2 days in middle school and for 1 day in high school, and field notes were kept on every visit made to the school over the 5-year period of the study.

For the most part, however, this report is based on Isabella’s own accounts of her experiences and feelings about them as recorded in interviews. Interviews, like other self-report measures, present limitations as well as strengths. Qualitative interview scholars readily acknowledge that no interview is simply a “search-and-discovery mission” (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995, p. 2) to document subjects’ preexisting knowledge and understandings. Rather, this study assumes a social constructionist perspective (see, e.g., Crotty, 1998) implying that researcher and participants mutually construct knowledge in the course of interactions (Shotter, 1993). This perspective acknowledges that Isabella’s presentation of herself and her experiences to the researcher was inextricably bound up in sedimented habitus—largely unconscious dispositions to perceive and act (see, e.g., Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992)—influenced by factors including Isabella’s and the researcher’s respective ages, educational background and occupation, social class, ethnicity and racialized identities, gender, and language backgrounds. By implication, both individuals’ perspectives and interpretations were unavoidably limited and partial. A social constructionist theoretical stance also implies that depictions of self are actively constructed and thus that Isabella had an interest in constructing an admirable, likeable “self” in her narrative (see, e.g., Goffman, 1967). Finally, it must be acknowledged that her narrative of self might not always be coherent or even factually accurate. It could also change over time as she searched for ways to explain her schooling path and choices. From this perspective, then, this report does not attempt to discern any external “truth,” nor to represent these events as they might have been experienced or perceived by others in Izzie’s family, school, or community.


Analysis began with analytic memos written immediately after interviews and during transcription. Data were reviewed multiple times in audio and print form, and more analytic memos were generated. Data were then entered into NVivo for further coding and analysis. As is common in qualitative research, the process of analysis continued through writing this research report.

In the course of data analysis, it became clear that gender figured into Izzie’s eventual decision not to attend college in nonintuitive and complex ways that were not predicted in existing literature on the subject and thus warranted further examination. The following analysis begins by outlining factors in Isabella’s background that existing research suggests should have fostered college enrollment, and those that might have hindered it. The article then turns to showing how some of the supposed risk factors in Izzie’s background in fact seemed to deter her from embracing traditional women’s roles. Conversely, it argues that although college is often assumed to be associated with autonomy and higher status for women, for Izzie, it would have perpetuated homebound and dependent status. The analysis suggests that wage-earning, on the other hand, represented a more viable means to challenge gender roles within her family. The article concludes with implications of Izzie’s case for further research and for possible gender-specific college recruitment strategies for Latinas in new immigrant communities.



When the study first began following Izzie as an eighth grader, there were strong reasons to hope that she could surmount the daunting statistics against Latina college enrollment. For one thing, she was an impressive student. Although Latinas overall are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs (Ginorio & Huston, 2001), Izzie had been identified as gifted in math in sixth grade. She was the lone Latina in the school’s accelerated track during middle school, where her teachers held high expectations and assumed that she, like her classmates, would eventually enroll in college. Izzie was clearly regarded as a talented student, and her teachers almost uniformly heaped praise on her work ethic and the quality of her academic work. For example, her schoolwork was replete with teacher comments such as “Great!” and “Good job!” Izzie also had strong mentors at school, including an ESOL teacher at her middle school who had befriended her older brothers and family, and a high school guidance counselor she regularly sought out who was known for his competence and compassion. In addition, having attended English medium schools her entire school career, Izzie also possessed a level of English proficiency that posed no impediment to her high academic achievement.

Izzie also demonstrated considerable agency as a student. In contrast to research and popular media suggesting that Latina adolescents are more lacking in self-esteem than Anglo and African American peers (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1992; Turner et al., 2006) and are passive and submissive at school (Gushue & Whitson, 2006), Izzie’s relationship with schooling accorded better with the selective acculturation and assimilation associated in research with school success (Carter, 2006; Davidson, 1996; Gibson, 1988; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). In the conservative Southern rural school she attended, she spoke up when she felt there was inequitable treatment of Hispanic students. In her Spanish classes, she verbally dueled with teachers she felt were not treating her rural Mexican home language and culture with enough respect (see Harklau, 2009). In her senior English class, she proposed focusing on the double standard posed by a dress code that allowed cheerleaders to wear short skirts to school while punishing Latinas who did the same. Another facilitative factor was Izzie’s active efforts to sustain a Latina social network at the school (Antrop-González et al., 2008; Barajas & Pierce, 2001; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2009; Valenzuela, 1999). She evidenced personal characteristics that have often been associated with individual Latina academic resilience and school success, including confidence and self-efficacy, persistence, determination, and occasional contrarian tendencies (Gándara, 1995; Solberg et al., 2007). Although her grades sometimes dipped because of stress, illness, or low motivation, she never doubted her academic ability and expressed firm confidence in her ability to pull grades up if necessary. She vigilantly monitored course requirements and grades. In the end, she became the first woman in her family to graduate from high school, and statistics would suggest that Latinas who graduate from high school attend college in similar proportion to their White peers (Ginorio & Huston, 2001).

Izzie also came from a stable two-parent family and had a mother and older brother who gave her frequent encouragement to think of college in her future. Her brother, for example, told her, “You’re going to be an architect or a lawyer or something. Doctor. And you’re going to finish school, you’re going to college’ and everything” (3/16/01). Likewise, Izzie reported, “My mom tells me she wants me to go to college” (3/16/01). Moreover, reminiscent of other studies in which daughters were encouraged to valerse por si misma [get along on one’s own] (see, e.g., Villenas, 2002), Izzie’s mother alternately encouraged and pushed her daughter to think about her future in roles outside the traditional wife and mother. When she realized that Izzie’s college aspirations were in jeopardy, she briefly proposed that Izzie “go to Mexico and be a fashion designer” (8/26/2004) and offered to buy her everything she needed to set up her own business. She threatened that if Izzie did not finish school and find a job she liked, she would “have to go with her to fill out the application at Sunnydale Farms” (11/17/03), a physically demanding and grimy job at the local chicken processing plant. When a young man started courting Izzie in her senior year, her mother urged her to take her time and date him “for 5 years” (9/22/05). In the transition to American life, not only Izzie but also her family took a perspective that it was good for girls to start their own life before they started a family. Such familial (especially mother’s) support has often shown to be a vital factor in Latina academic achievement (Antrop-González et al., 2008; Dumka, Gonzales, Bonds, & Millsap, 2009; Plunkett & Bámaca-Gómez, 2003; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2009; Witkow & Fuligni, 2011) and college-going (Gándara, 1995; Witkow & Fuligni).


Yet Izzie’s background also included many risk factors that have been associated with non-college-enrollment. For one, she attended a poorly performing school in a high-poverty rural district (Lindholm, 2006; Zambrana & Zoppi, 2002). Compounding this was Isabella’s parents’ low level of education (Lindholm; Plunkett & Bámaca-Gómez, 2003) and low socioeconomic status (Beattie, 2002; Bloom, 2007; Kao & Tienda, 1995; Rumbaut, 2005; Zambrana & Zoppi; Zarete & Gallimore, 2005), well-established risk factors for lowered educational expectations and attainment. Neither of her parents had been educated beyond elementary school, and both worked as unskilled laborers. Although Izzie perceived their family to be more prosperous than most Latinos in their community, the family nonetheless qualified for free or reduced fee meals at school and the state medical insurance program for low-income children. Worries about money were a persistent refrain in the household, and Izzie realized early on that when it came to college, “They don’t have money right now to pay” (12/6/00).

Moreover, although her family often expressed their hopes that Izzie and her siblings would go to college, like many immigrants, they lacked practical knowledge of what it would take for their children to actually accomplish this feat (Tornatzky et al., 2002). Izzie also lacked college-going role models in her siblings and peers, an important indicator of non-college-enrollment (Gándara, 1995; Ginorio & Huston, 2001; Hossler et al., 1999). Neither of her older brothers had gone to college immediately after high school.3 Although Izzie was eligible to take advanced classes, she expressed discomfort with being the only Latina among the mostly White, middle-class “Americans” in such classes. Although (or perhaps because) Izzie had grown up with many of the White students since elementary school, she perceived an acute social gulf between “American” and “Hispanic” students. Instead, she organized her class schedule so that she could take more classes with “Hispanic” cousins and other friends, few of whom were in college preparatory track classes. The favoring of an immigrant Latina peer in-group has been associated with poorer academic outcomes for girls (Riegle-Crumb & Callahan, 2009). Perhaps as a result, although Izzie herself might say on occasion that she wanted to go to Harvard or—unaccountably—the University of Arizona, these statements often had a somewhat hypothetical air, and even in the same interview, she might shift her view of the future to something closer to the models she had at home: “After high school, I’ll probably be dating somebody while working and I’ll probably get married. And have some children and just take it from there. Just like my mom. But with more money” (5/16/02).

Izzie was also the oldest daughter in her family, a position frequently associated with limiting Latinas’ time for studying and extracurricular activities (Ginorio & Huston, 2001; Williams et al., 2002). Her mother frequently worked outside the home, leaving Izzie responsible for daily house cleaning, babysitting her two younger brothers, fixing dinner, and doing the family’s laundry. Izzie’s mother often sent her to relatives’ homes to babysit and clean for them. According to Izzie, her parents prioritized housework to the extent that they “don’t care if I don’t do my homework . . . all they do is, ‘Did you clean the house?’” (9/25/01). As a result, she had to complete her homework between 10 p.m. and midnight, after her siblings had gone to bed. She was also not allowed to take part in any after-school extracurricular activities, a factor associated with the likelihood of college enrollment (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). She noted, “I asked my mom and she’s like, ‘No. You’re too busy at home already’” (12/6/00).

Izzie had several close acquaintances as well as a younger sister who had started families while still in high school, a factor linked to increased risks of teen pregnancy (East & Kiernan, 2001). She observed, “All my friends and my cousins, they get married after their Sweet 15” (3/16/01). Like other new Latino diaspora communities, Izzie’s community included a disproportionate number of single young men (Kochhar et al., 2005), and the social controls that had existed on courtship in their Mexican village were largely absent in Georgia. Although Izzie’s family was ever vigilant, in the end, they could not completely prevent contact. Already in ninth grade, unbeknownst to her parents, Izzie was being approached by a “friend” (5/16/02) who had given her roses, and she was being invited to dance parties at the houses of friends while their parents were not at home. Trips to do family errands or visit cousins could easily turn into coincidental encounters with interested young men. In Izzie’s sophomore year, her parents’ worst fears were realized when Izzie’s younger sister became pregnant and went to live with her boyfriend.

A final risk factor was Izzie’s chronic health problems. Like many other working poor Hispanic families, Izzie’s family had no health insurance (Brodie, Suro, Steffenson, Valdez, & Levin, 2002). Izzie’s medical care thus had little consistency or follow-up, and over the years of the study, her symptoms were attributed to everything from gallbladder problems, to ovarian cysts, to anxiety and depression, to anemia, to migraines. In her sophomore year, Izzie’s family sent her to clinics in Mexico for regimens of vitamin injections, leading to school disruptions that eventually delayed her high school graduation by a semester.

In all, then, although Izzie’s personal and academic history included some factors that have been associated with positive educational outcomes for Latinas, it also included a number of major risk factors. It would perhaps be unsurprising to stop here and conclude that these risk factors simply overwhelmed Izzie’s academic advantages and resulted in her choosing to forgo college. Yet the data in this case suggest that some the factors commonly put forward as risks actually deterred Izzie from leaving school or taking a path of early childbearing.


For one thing, Izzie’s close association with women who started families early did not serve as peer pressure or an incentive to do likewise, as is commonly assumed in the literature (East & Kiernan, 2001). In fact, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Izzie had two close associations with teenage mothers during the study. One was her younger sister, who, after becoming pregnant, quit school and moved in with her boyfriend and his father and cousin. Izzie’s sister’s new life might have initially seemed attractive because she was no longer answerable to her parents for her daily conduct and neither went to school nor worked. However, within months, she found herself stranded in a small trailer home with a colicky baby, no transportation, and housework for an entire household. Low income and stress took their toll. She had to take a job at a fast food restaurant, the only employment for which she was qualified as a high school dropout. She and her daughter fell into poor health. The couple fought frequently, and on two occasions, Izzie’s sister and her daughter moved back home. Her boyfriend became involved with another young woman. He briefly left town seeking work in Mexico and Pennsylvania, and it was rumored he had other girlfriends. He came back, the couple reconciled, and Izzie’s sister became pregnant for a second time. Izzie’s parents told her it was time for her to move out and make her own way in the world with her novio, for better or worse. Izzie saw firsthand the hardships and heartaches that early parenthood had brought to her sister’s life.

Similarly, in her junior year, Izzie’s older brother’s girlfriend became pregnant and came to live with the family. The family disapproved of the young woman from the start, and tensions ran high. As the oldest female not working outside the home, she was expected to assume most of the housekeeping chores for the entire family. Her work and her whereabouts were constantly scrutinized, and Izzie’s mother became angry if she left the house during the day. The young family finally moved out, refusing to even disclose where they were living and leaving hard feelings all around. In all, Izzie witnessed firsthand that early parenthood and cohabitation was far from a fairytale existence. She also saw that it seldom led to autonomy, but rather simply trading one’s own family’s supervision and household chores for another’s. Izzie also realized that this was a path with no return, observing that in many of these cases, “when they get mad at their boyfriend, they want to go home but their parents don’t want them anymore” (5/16/02). Izzie’s mother and oldest brother constantly held up these cases and others as cautionary tales for the pitfalls of early marriage and family. Izzie’s mother discouraged her children from jumping into a relationship, reiterating that the family would not help them should they marry badly. As Izzie reported, “She’s like, ‘If you get married, you’re not gonna take nothing from this house. You’re gonna leave everything here’” (11/16/01). Likewise, Izzie’s oldest brother told her disapprovingly that “those other girls that, they get married, they get pregnant, and they look all pale” and had urged her not to fall into the same trap, telling her, “You’re not going to be like those other girls” (3/16/01).

Existing scholarship often also assumes that homemaking chores act as a form of socialization and apprenticeship into traditional gendered household roles (Williams et al., 2002). Yet in Izzie’s case, constant exposure to babysitting and housekeeping chores did not cause her to embrace homemaking, but rather led her to regard it as tedious and unrewarding. In eighth grade, Izzie had said that she enjoyed taking care of her cousins, but as the years went on, she expressed increasing irritation with the mess and noise that children created. For example, of her cousins, she commented, “They’re too much trouble. . . . You can’t have them inside. They will just break everything” (4/25/02). Likewise, she complained, “[my younger brothers] go into my room and watch TV and mess up everything. And I get home and clean it, and then 5 minutes later, it’s all dirty again and I just hate it” (3/16/01). Izzie never embraced housework as her responsibility or even her preference and agitated to escape its clutches. By high school, she simply refused to do the work at times. At other times, she dodged it by claiming migraines or gallbladder problems, or she coerced her father into doing it for her.

In all, then, Izzie’s close associations with teen pregnancy and homemaking did not function as incentives or socialization into traditional gender roles as has often been assumed in the literature. Rather, her experiences seemed to dissuade her from trading her place as a daughter for a life as a mother and homemaker.


Although some of the factors commonly seen as risks for non-college-enrollment may have actually worked as incentives for Izzie to stay in school, conversely, some of the factors commonly seen as incentives for college-going were largely absent in her case. Scholarship and policy have tended to portray the economic and personal incentives for college-going as almost self-evident (Bloom, 2007) and to cast college-bound youth as amateur econometricians weighing the economic and life chances of a college education against its costs (Perna, 2000). Nevertheless, for youth, the attraction of college probably does not lie solely or even primarily in a forward-thinking sense of its benefits to themselves and to society. Often underestimated is the allure of independent subsidized living (Erikson, 1968; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002; Tierney, 1993). The notion of college-going as an institutionalized “psychosocial moratorium,” first formulated by Erikson, has continued to exert a strong influence in both scholarly work and popular imagination on college-going. In this idyllic vision, college is seen as a “structured socialization setting” (Côté & Levine, 1988) where youth have societal permission to temporarily delay their coming adult responsibilities and to experiment in a carefree way with varying identities—that is, to “find themselves.” In this view, they are given both a safety net (dorm resident advisors, financial support) and also “selective permissiveness on the part of society” (Erikson), a license to experiment or “provocative playfulness” (Erikson). This freedom and security have thus been theorized to be major incentives for youth to forgo full adult status and subject themselves to four more years of schooling.

Latino/a immigrant students, like other immigrant students, first-generation college students, and low-income students, are much more likely to begin college in community colleges (Bloom, 2007), where the meaning of college-going is not as likely to include this sort of psychosocial moratorium. Instead, they are likely to be commuter students with continuing obligations to home and family as well as school (see, e.g., Gándara & Contreras, 2009; Sy, 2006). Although commuter student status is often used to explain college attrition among Latinos/as, less is understood about how it may discourage college-going in the first place. In stark contrast to the psychosocial moratorium that college represents for the middle class attending residential colleges, for Izzie, college represented the perpetuation of the most irksome aspects of her status within her family.

Like many Latinas/os (Brodie et al., 2002), particularly first-generation Mexican immigrants, Izzie’s family shared an expectation that she would live at home—where they could care for her and closely monitor her activities—until marriage (Ginorio & Huston, 2001; González et al., 2004). This expectation was first made clear to Izzie in eighth grade after a fieldtrip during which students stayed overnight in a dormitory and went to visit classes at a local college. Entranced with what she had seen, Izzie eagerly went home to talk with her parents about the prospect of going away to college. Her mother, however, got “really mad” (9/25/01) and made it clear that she would be staying at home while she went to college. The incident marked an early and significant turning point in Izzie’s enthusiasm for college.

Moreover, it was not simply living at home that was the issue. Going to college would have also perpetuated her status as a young unmarried female, meaning that the family felt they had the right and obligation to closely monitor her every activity, particularly when she went out of the house. Such close parental monitoring of girls has often been ascribed to Mexican cultural traditions of familismo and marianismo (see, e.g., Plunkett & Bámaca-Gómez, 2003; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Valenzuela, 1999) and was sometimes invoked by educators at Izzie’s schools. On the other hand, as Reese (2002), Villenas (2001), and others have found, “locking up” one’s children in the house is often a response to perceived moral and safety threats of the United States to children, particularly girls. Accordingly, the family’s surveillance became even more severe in the aftermath of Izzie’s sister’s pregnancy.

Although researchers have suggested that such close parental monitoring may in fact contribute to Latinas’ superior performance while in high school (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Valenzuela, 1999), it nonetheless may be perceived as onerous by Latina immigrants who can compare their experience to that of middle-class American-born peers. Izzie often found life in her crowded house irritating and claustrophobic. She sometimes came close to tears when complaining, “I’m just so tired of being here [in the house] . . . I like to go OUT . . . not being inside my house always, on the weekends, or weekdays” (5/18/04). She complained that her siblings and visiting cousins constantly intruded on her private space. She had very little personal freedom of movement outside of the house. She frequently reported, for example, “They just won’t let me go anywhere” (3/10/04). She complained that she was discouraged from making contact with people, particularly males, outside of her immediate family circle. Her oldest brother even discouraged her from going out in the yard. She reported, “I can’t even talk to a guy. I can’t have any friends. . . . I can’t say ‘Elizabeth is my friend’ because my mama goes, ‘There is no real friends. You know, they’ll betray you’” (4/25/02). She was rarely allowed to take the car and go out with friends, and when she did, she was expected to take her younger brothers or cousins with her. Her oldest brother quizzed her about where she had been when she returned home and lectured her if she came in late. She reported angrily, “He just [says]—‘Stay home and clean the house and cook’” (5/16/02). She reported, “[My mother was] always checking my things to see if I got, like, letters from guy, or pictures, or anything like that. . . . She wants to know EVERYTHING” (2/15/05). The way Izzie dressed was likewise monitored carefully, and her mother reserved veto power over her outfits, saying, for example, “‘That does not look nice on a decent little girl.’ You know?” (5/16/02). For Izzie, college offered only the perpetuation of her housebound, surveilled, and disciplined status as a female child of the household for four more years.

Furthermore, whereas middle-class youth attending college are often accorded a more adultlike and autonomous status in their family, Izzie would have instead found herself relegated to the bottom of her family’s domestic hierarchy in which income earners (both male and female) were privileged. For example, they had first rights to precious bathroom time, and Izzie had to get up at 5 a.m. to use it before the workers of the household claimed it. Workers were also allowed more latitude in how they spent their off-work hours. Lower in the hierarchy was domestic labor, such as taking care of children for relatives. Lowest was taking care of the household’s own daily maintenance, a job that would have continued to fall largely to Izzie. For Izzie, then, going to college would have continued her low status. It would also perpetuate what she perceived as an acute double standard for males and females in her family. She became angry when describing the discrepancy between how she and her older brothers were treated in her family, observing,

The perfect guys. I mean, they don’t have nothing to do with the house. They don’t cook. They just do whatever they want. It’s GUYS. Girls, on the other hand, are not supposed to do that. They’re supposed to look after their brothers, cook, and everything like that. I don’t know why it’s like that. (5/16/02)

Finally, unlike the traditional middle-class view of college, in which (long-suffering) families are expected to open their checkbooks and support their children with few questions asked, Izzie realized that going to college would have meant not only continued financial dependence but also that every dollar she spent was open to the scrutiny and critique of her family. Her sibling wage earners, on the other hand, had considerable autonomy regarding the money they earned and how they spent it. Izzie thus chafed at being dependent on her parents for money. In all, then, going to college presented few immediate incentives for Izzie and represented the continuation of low status and lack of autonomy within her family. It is no wonder that she did not find college to be an attractive option.


In contrast to college-going, Izzie realized early on that wage-earning would be a family-sanctioned way to fight family strictures on her behavior and the double standard she perceived in her family’s domestic hierarchy. She could also see how her mother’s work outside the home was changing her parents’ notions of gender roles; for example, her father had begun to assume more of the housework. Already at the age of 15 she was lobbying her mother to work “at McDonald’s or something like that” (5/28/01), but her mother felt she was too young. By the following summer, she had adopted a more convincing argument that she should work over the summer to buy her sister’s quinceañera dress. This would have been an important symbolic contribution to the family as a wage earner and as an adult. It was not that Izzie particularly enjoyed working; in fact, she talked less than enthusiastically about her summers as a restaurant table busser and fast food worker. Nevertheless, work had a clear instrumental objective for her. Wage-earning represented one of the few sanctioned opportunities Izzie had to get out of the house and engage in prolonged interactions with people outside of her family.

Izzie also viewed wage-earning as a means to fight against the double standard she perceived in her family hierarchy and to assert her equality with her brothers as a contributor to the household income. She saw in her brothers an example of the sort of autonomy she could potentially have if she worked after high school. Her brothers paid the family’s mortgage and in return were accorded almost complete autonomy outside of work hours. Her brother, for example, “just gets to do whatever he wants. Like he don’t have to worry about nothing, about homework or anything like that” (1/15/03). Granted, she recognized that her status as an adult worker would be somewhat different from her brothers, noting, “I can’t go out as much as they [her brothers] do” (1/15/03). Yet work still held considerable allure.

In her junior year, Izzie realized that she could use the credibility and authority of her school’s “workplace readiness” program to ease her way into both full-time wage-earning and an outside social life. The school assisted Izzie in finding a job as a cashier at a local grocery store. This was not a taxing job for a student who was gifted in math. It was also an ideal job for someone seeking a sanctioned means of social contact because the store was frequented by the town’s Latino community. With her parents’ blessing, Izzie began by working short shifts after school and on weekends and gradually worked her way up to near full-time employment. In our last interviews in fall 2005, her new clothes and jewelry and even her posture and demeanor reflected her satisfaction in her new status. She was almost gleeful as she reported on her newfound independence. In one exchange with her mother, for example, she reported, “this weekend I wanted to go out, and she’s like, ‘No, you’re not going to go out if you don’t tell me how much money you have.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not going to tell you. It’s my money.’ ‘Cause, you know, she don’t give it to me” (10/13/05). Izzie related that she had bought new furnishings for the house, such as a shower curtain and dish towels, simultaneously making visible her adult status through contributions to the household and reinforcing her right to discretionary spending. She even seemed to be getting along better with her mother, who was meting out her consejos (Valdés, 1996; Villenas & Moreno, 2001) in ever smaller amounts.


Although a great deal of large-scale research has examined risk factors associated with non-college-going, Izzie’s experience shows the complementary value of in-depth longitudinal case studies to understanding of the protracted and as yet little understood process through which these factors play out in the lives of individuals, leading students to make the decision to pursue or forgo higher education (Lindholm, 2006). Case studies like Izzie’s can help us to refine existing models, question some of their premises, and suggest directions for further research. They also serve to remind us of the heterogeneity and diversity to be found in the individual schooling paths of Latino/a immigrant youth.

We have increasing indications that there are gender-specific factors at work in Latino/a immigrant students’ academic achievement and college-going decisions. Izzie’s case contributes to growing evidence that “girls and boys experience different schooling trajectories that determine college enrollment outcomes” (Zarete & Gallimore, 2005, p. 385). Recent work is showing that although factors such as generational status, English/Spanish bilingualism and biliteracy, intraethnic peer relationships, parental monitoring and aspirations, and relationships with educators may be linked on the whole to schooling outcomes for Latinos/as, these factors figure differentially for men and women (Alfaro et al., 2009; Callahan, 2007/2008; Lutz & Crist, 2009; Riegle-Crumb & Callahan, 2009; Zarete & Gallimore). Yet the preponderance of research to date continues to treat gender-related differences as incidental.

When they are addressed, Latinas’ low rates of high school graduation and college enrollment are often assumed to be attributable to socialization into traditional cultural patterns of familism, submissiveness, and early marriage and motherhood. Izzie’s experience contradicts this assumption. Izzie was far from submissive or lacking confidence in her academic abilities. She was academically gifted with a strong sense of self-efficacy and family support for college aspirations. Moreover, in Izzie’s case, some of the factors typically associated with low achievement and forgoing college—such as close association with teen parents and socialization into homemaking and child care—actually served as deterrents, showing her paths she wished to avoid in her own future. On the other hand, college enrollment for Izzie did not have the allure of adult autonomy that it usually does for middle-class American youth. In fact, college-going would only have perpetuated her heavily supervised, low status as a dependent female child within her family’s domestic hierarchy. Becoming a wage earner gave Izzie the most viable position from which to claim adult independence and challenge her family’s perceived double standard for men’s and women’s gender roles. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that a smart, ambitious, and determined young Latina might choose to forgo college and instead become a wage earner.

Izzie’s case also lends support to arguments in recent scholarship suggesting the mutability of gender roles in immigrant communities. Not only Izzie but also her entire family were engaged in an ongoing renegotiation of gender roles in regard to work and family. Izzie’s choice suggests that in at least some cases, Latina youth decisions about their futures may not be merely an accession to the cultural discourses around them or the passive reproduction of a gendered subject; rather, they can be powerfully agentive. In this, it suggests that models of Latino/a school achievement must not only pay to the presence or absence of risk factors in students’ backgrounds but also give greater consideration to how they are mediated by gender as well as by individual youths’ understandings and actions (Zarete & Gallimore, 2005).

Izzie’s case suggests a need for more explicit exploration of the role of gender in the dynamics of immigrant social class, segmented assimilation, and social reproduction. Although scholars have long acknowledged that gender interacts with class in ways that may create quite different acculturative experiences for male and female immigrants (Rumbaut, 2005), there is as yet far less research available on working-class women’s social incorporation than on men’s. We do not know, for example, if or how Latinas’ individual choices to forgo higher education nonetheless end up contributing to a broader phenomenon of social reproduction (see, e.g., Willis, 1981) or downward assimilation to the working class for many Mexican American immigrants (Rumbaut, 2005). Smith (2002), for example, contended that labor force incorporation of working-class Mexican American women is different from that of men because women tend to enter the labor force in “pink collar” service sector jobs that have more opportunities for advancement than traditionally male working-class occupations. Smith suggested that working-class Latinas may ultimately be more upwardly mobile than Latinos. More research is needed to clarify whether individual Latina youths’ college-going and occupational choices contribute to gendered college-going and labor market trends.

Izzie’s story could be seen as a warning bell for educators hoping to boost immigrant Latina participation in higher education. It does not augur well when even a smart, capable, and self-confident Latina immigrant chooses to forgo college. If Izzie’s experience is shared by other Latinas, it might have implications for college recruitment strategies. For one thing, experiences like Izzie’s reinforce previous work suggesting the importance of early and consistent parent outreach for Latino/a college-bound students, particularly those from new immigrant communities where there are few existing models for college-going (Gándara & Contreras, 2009). It was not enough for educators to tell Izzie that she was college material, or for her mother and brother to tell her (Ceja, 2006). Her parents, especially her mother, could have used a much stronger sense of how high schools function both academically and socially to prepare students for college and the expectations of American higher education. In particular, Izzie’s story, if shared by others, suggests that families and schools needed to do more to foster participation in school and community extracurricular activities so that Latinas have viable, “safe” avenues for building an academically oriented social network and social capital. Research indicates that a parenting style that fosters “sponsored independence” (Reese, 2002)—allowing Latina adolescents agency and access to school-sponsored extracurricular activities while preserving parental approval and sponsorship—has been associated greater academic ambitions and achievement (Gándara & Contreras). In Izzie’s case, this might have given her a route to both pursue academics and achieve some autonomy instead of making this an either-or choice.

Izzie’s case also highlights a significant gap in our understanding of potential gender-specific strategies to attract first-generation immigrant Latinas to colleges. For example, in Izzie’s case, one wonders whether she might have been more successful in convincing her parents to send her to a residential four-year college if she had had access to a college recruitment program that could assure her family of undisrupted connections with them as well as social support and social strictures at college that were similar to those at home. For example, González et al. (2004) attributed the success of one model university recruitment program to its ability to reassure Latino parents that their daughters would have social and emotional support systems available, including Latino faculty and staff, a church, and a community of other Latina/o college students. This also jibes with research suggesting that familial emotional support can be vital to Latina college success (Ong, Phinney, & Dennis, 2006; Sy, 2006).

Izzie’s case also implies potential benefits in taking a gendered strategy to recruit Latina career role models and mentors. Research suggests that mentoring through community programs can be of particular importance to Latinas (Gándara, 2001; Hamrick & Stage, 2003). Izzie’s experience bolsters arguments that effective Latina mentoring and recruitment programs need to focus on reaching out not only to students but also to their parents, especially mothers, who, in Izzie’s case and in previous work (see, e.g., Gándara, 1995), have been found to play the largest role in fostering their daughter’s ambitions for the future. Finally, Izzie’s experience implies that there might be a significant and untapped demand by immigrant families for models of residential higher education that more fully embrace an “in loco parentis” role through close social regulation of behavior or same-sex education.

Izzie’s experience also suggests a new angle to explore on long-standing findings that low income is a significant barrier to college attendance (see, e.g., Gándara & Contreras, 2009), and thus the importance of financial aid in attracting low-income Latino/a immigrant students to college. To be attractive to Izzie, higher education needed to not only be within her family’s financial reach but also provide her with some discretion and control over her own finances. This suggests that further research should be done not only on the effects of availability but also on the forms of student financial support awarded. For example, a work-study program might have allowed Izzie to be a wage earner but stay on campus. Perhaps for this reason, research shows that although employment is negatively correlated with college success, on-campus part-time jobs may actually increase students’ engagement in college (Sy, 2006). Finally, more research on individual student paths would be needed to see if and how students like Izzie might eventually be persuaded to pursue college as nontraditional students once they have firmly established autonomy and adult status.

In all, Izzie’s case contributes to a growing body of work indicating a need to take greater consideration of gender when examining the factors and processes that keep Latinos/as in the college pipeline or draw them from it. The point is “not to focus on one sex at the exclusion of the other, but rather, to not be neglectful of the unique challenges faced by both male and female students” (Sáenz & Ponjuan, 2009, p. 58); rather, it is to investigate how gender creates unique pathways into college and the workforce in order to facilitate the progress of academically talented Latina/o youth through the college pipeline.


1. Six students were originally selected, but one dropped out of the study after 1 1/2 years.

2. I use the term Hispanic and Latino interchangeably here, while acknowledging the pitfalls and controversies inherent in any pan-ethnic term.

3. Late in the study, Izzie found out that her oldest brother had indeed been attending college regularly but had concealed it from the family. Unfortunately, that meant that he was not a role model or mentor for Izzie while she was in high school.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 1, 2013, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16743, Date Accessed: 6/16/2021 6:41:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Linda Harklau
    University of Georgia
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    LINDA HARKLAU is a professor in the TESOL & world language education program and linguistics program at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on the academic development and high school-to-college transition of adolescent and young adult immigrants in the United States. Her work has appeared in journals including Educational Policy, Journal of Literacy Research, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, TESOL Quarterly, and Linguistics and Education. She is coeditor of volumes including Generation 1.5 Meets College Composition (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999) and Linguistic Minority Students Go to College (Routledge, 2012).
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