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Positionality as Prologue: Encountering the Self on the Journey to Transforming Latina/o/x Educational Inequities

by Michelle M. Espino - 2018

Positionality is an often overlooked but strategic practice for analyzing race and racism within the organizational bounds of predominantly White institutions of higher education. Positionality is critical self-reflection that uncovers the tensions and areas of strength found in relationships among the researcher, the research topic, the study participants, and the data analysis process. I argue that the researcherís practice of interrogating and articulating their personal and professional knowledge, values, beliefs, experiences, and embedded assumptions about race and racism can also be applied to a practitioner who plans to engage in dismantling systemic racial inequities in higher education. This chapter will illustrate how individuals embedded within institutions of higher education can interrogate their own positions within racist organizational contexts; attend to power dynamics as educational leaders, narrators, and subjects of inquiry; and commit to transformational practice that can address Latina/o/x educational inequities.


I am La Profesora, La Jefa, La Sobreviviente.
I am a daughter, a sister, a sister-scholar, a godmother.
I am a friend who is like family. I am a colleague and a homegirl.
I am from Oh, she is a smart girl and
How did YOU know what that word means? and
Youre so light, you can pass as White.

What does it mean to live in a nation that denies so many Latinas/os/x the opportunities to a good education, equal opportunity, and quality of life? What does it mean to work in institutions of higher education that disregard and ignore the knowledge learned in the home, through stories shared around the kitchen table, to the consejos [advice], and the dichos [sayings] that informed many at an early age about the power of education (Espino, 2016; Kohl & McCutcheon, 2015)? My formal training has taught me to analyze what is, to present multiple truths in our world, to glean from lessons learned from previous generations so that we as scholars and practitioners have a deeper, multifaceted understanding of societal problems. Yet, this is where my formal training fails me, when I begin to realize the fragmented lives that many Latinas/os/x who enter higher education experience, segmented because who Latinas/os/x are in the classroom has to be different from who we are at home. My formal training beckons me to see the world through a distant lens, to keep at an arms length so that I can approach a problem with objectivity. My spirit calls me to engage, to immerse myself as a whole person so that my understanding of the world is enhanced with compassion and care.

That lesson was learned even before I started school, in the borderlands of El Paso, Texas. It was a lesson taught at the kitchen table; the same stories shared multiple times but with a different moral to be learned. My formal training taught me to theorize about life, but my educación [respectability, morals, and values] taught me to live it. There were dreams and aspirations carried on the backs of those who came before me so that I could stand proudly even in the midst of strife and difficulty. My life was a reflection of how others had lived and my role was to honor the wisdom and knowledge that could not be found in any book, but was found from being in communion with others. One day it would be my turn to tell the stories, my turn to inflect my wisdom of having lived, and my turn to teach and learn. I was cultivated as a border crosser and interpreter, living among the borderlands of school, family, community, cultura, relationships, and my future.


The impetus for thinking/studying/writing about Latina/o/x students, administrators, and faculty was understanding my pathway through higher education as a Chicana feminist, middle-class, first-generation college student who was socialized to successfully navigate institutions of higher education as a student and now as a faculty member. As a qualitative researcher, I am on a journey to transform Latina/o/x educational inequities, seeking to uncover the institutional structures that sort Latinas/os/x along a pathway to college or lead them away from higher education.

The pathway to the professoriate and beyond offers a stark portrait of the challenges that Latinas/os/x face in accessing and persisting in college, graduate school, and the tenure track. Latinas/os/x are generally found at two-year colleges and are less likely to earn a bachelors degree (Fry & Taylor, 2013). Only 20% of Latinas/os/x over the age of 25 have earned at least an associates degree, in contrast to 36% of all adults in the U.S. (Santiago & Calderón Galdeano, 2014). In graduate education, Latinas/os/x represent only 10.9% of the total graduate student population, in contrast to Whites at 60.7% (Okahana & Zhou, 2017). It has taken over a decade for Latinas/os/x to almost double in proportion with regard to doctoral degree attainment, moving from 3.3% in 1992 to only 7% in 2015 (National Science Foundation, 2017). Although the enrollment share of Latina/o/x undergraduate and graduate students has increased, completion of degrees remains tenuous at best, which hinders the potential for an increased representation of Latina/o/x faculty (Lopez & Fry, 2013). The cycle of underrepresentation continues as Latinas/os/x in secondary school, the foundation of the educational pipeline, have limited access to the valued forms of cultural and social capital as they aspire to higher education, and even less access to Latina/o/x faculty and staff who can offer mentorship and support once they enroll in college (Espino, 2014).

Latina/o/x racial realities on college campuses need to be included in educational research to learn more about the ways in which hostile campus environments, implicit bias, and organizational racism lead to discriminatory policies and practices that hinder educational attainment and career advancement. Conversations about inclusive excellence need to address the exclusion of Latinas/os/x at the most elite universities, their tokenization, marginalization, and isolation, their navigation through organizational and structural labyrinths, and the structural violence with which they contend and its related stress (Aguirre, 2000; Gonzáles, Murakami, & Núñez, 2013; Johnsrud & Sadao, 1998; Martínez Alemán, 1995; Turner, 2002). As someone who inhabits that academic space, I am using evidence and data to reclaim myself within and along these structures of inequity. I use my research to create change, to validate lived experience, to address institutionalized racism for the public good.

In this chapter, I argue that one step in interrogating systems of oppression within institutions of higher education is to elevate positionality from a scholarly practice of interrogating and articulating ones personal and professional knowledge, values, beliefs, experiences, and embedded assumptions about race and racism, to an emancipatory higher education strategy for practitioners who strive to dismantle Latina/o/x inequities in higher education. I will first introduce how self-reflexivity and positionality are applied in research and then shapeshift the concept for practitioners using an example from my research on Latina/o/x university administrators.


I have had a multitude of opportunities to reflect on my fragmentation in academe and to address the complexities of interrogating systems of oppression within my own communities, including the internalized oppression manifested through White supremacy and patriarchy (Espino, 2016). I have been trained to see myself as an instrument of analysis&. [My] interests, values, experiences, and purpose influence every decision I make throughout the research process (Jones, Torres, & Arminio, 2014, p. 39). When I present my positionality, I am offering more than a litany of my identities. Positionality is an interrogation of how my identities, values, and personal and professional experiences affect moments along the pathway to uncovering truths about lived experience. I need to consider how my lived experience as a racialized and minoritized woman has influenced my research interests, the type of conceptual or theoretical frameworks that I employ, the research questions, and the interactions with participants from recruitment to the (re)presentation of their stories. I am called to carry pieces of participants lived experiences with care, respect, and honor because they are entangled with my understandings of [participants] stories, and their understandings of [mine] (Berry & Clair, 2011, p. 95). Rather than attempting to disentangle these stories from my own stories, I acknowledge my position within and across the stories of lived experiencemy positionality. Positionality offers a unique opportunity to delve more deeply into how ones lived experience and professional training affect power dynamics, positions of privilege and subjugation, and relationships among self, others, ones chosen discipline, and the larger society.

Amid the tensions and mechanisms of fragmentation that I have experienced in higher education, I have found respite and wholeness through the articulation of my positionality. Throughout my writings, I leave papelitos guardados for the reader to find, pieces of lived experience that trace my location in higher education across time and context (Latina Feminist Group, 2001). They offer a glimpse into my life as a shapeshifter, constantly navigating and negotiating tensions as a scholar and subject of inquiry, as well as the in-between spaces I occupy (Kohl & McCutcheon, 2015; Ortega, 2016). They acknowledge the contradictions and complexities of my personal and professional experiences and my resistance against the ways I am constructed and othered in academic spaces (Boylorn, 2011; Emirbayer & Desmond, 2012; Espinoza, 1990).

I am inspired by stories that offer a more complex and complicated understanding of how racialized people make meaning of what they experience along the academic life course, especially as they travel through educational systems that are not built for them, educational systems that are not meant to sustain them. My research reflects the internal struggles I experience as I uncover Latina/o/x educational inequities. I willingly examine how I am situated along an axis of privilege and subjugation and uncover kernels of wisdom gathered as a scholar who has (in)directly benefited from research that offers its focus of inquiry to specific communities with which I identify. My remembering of self (Boylorn, 2011, p. 178) is a reflexive turn to positionality, a critical exploration into the motivations, decision-making processes, and the contextual and temporal circumstances involved in conducting meaningful research that has the potential to transform systems of higher education for students and their families. I believe that the move toward equity and justice in higher education involves an open dialogue about power within racist academic organizations that first begins with the self.


Questions about a researchers presuppositions or prenotions have been well documented since the nascent beginnings of social science research (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2012, p. 575). Prenotions are pieces of the researchers lived experience and knowledge that need to be critically analyzed to determine whether and how their origins are rooted in systemic oppression (i.e., the process of articulating ones positionality). Prenotions have not necessarily been drawn out in research studies or formally disclosed in writing because the pressing concerns are objectivity and neutrality, which stress the importance of distance between the researcher and participants (Kobayashi, 2003).

Uncovering how prenotions inform positionality has also been critiqued as a self-indulgent practice and a diversion from the actual research because what often becomes more comfortable and comforting is the disclosure of a litany of identities and the parsing of insider and outsider (Calafell & Moreman, 2002; Chavez, 2008; Kohl & McCutcheon, 2015). Often condensed to a few sentences in the methodology section (if, at all), it is possible that the naming of how one is similar and/or different from participants would shift the focus to the researcher, serving more as a check list rather than a practice of uncovering power (Kobayashi, 2003). However, ample evidence suggests that unexamined prenotions can lead to educational research that promotes stereotypes and deficit-centered perspectives and practices, especially with regard to minoritized student populations. For example, depictions of Latina/o/x families as devaluing education and lacking college knowledge creates negative assumptions about families, disrespect of cultural values, and tracking into vocational training rather than college preparation courses (Espino, 2016; Valencia & Black, 2002).

Even the most experienced researcher could find difficulty in asking herself, Who are we to ourselves and others, and who do we become? (Berry & Clair, 2011, p. 95). However, existential questions burrowed deep into the (sub)conscious better serve as starting and returning points in an iterative process of uncovering positionality. How does ones racial identity(ies) and its intersections with other identities inform how one moves through society, through everyday life? How do the nuances of everyday life inform how one approaches Latina/o/x educational inequity, ones interactions with Latina/o/x participants? What conversations about the intersections of race, racism, immigration, and language is the researcher willing to have with colleagues, participants, and the reader?

It is no coincidence that positionality is more likely to be excavated in works from scholars who write from the margins, in contrast to White scholars, who take for granted their own Whiteness and how that Whiteness shapes their research and worldviews (Calafell & Moreman, 2002, p. 125). It is clear from critical and emancipatory theories and epistemologies, including standpoint theory, feminisms, and critical race theory (to name a few), that the researcher who is dedicated to analyzing racial inequities in higher education cannot circumvent their own vulnerabilities, assumptions, and expressions of power that affect them as racialized people. To disclose the hidden presuppositions that shape our thought (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2012, p. 574) is to reflect deeply on how the researchers scholarly contributions reveal intellectual strivings and personal affect, as well as the social conditions within which they are situated (see Espino, 2012).

An educational researcher who advances equitable policies and practices through empirical work uses positionality to uncover how social power and the social ordering of race affect individuals within educational institutions and structures (Chavez, 2008). She cannot pretend to be objective or neutral about the role of race and racism along the research path. On the contrary, every step of the research design process needs to be thoroughly interrogated and critically evaluated to ensure that space is offered for the voices of the marginalized with a sense of justice and a call for change. If systemic transformation in higher education is to occur, I argue that practitioners also have a professional obligation to address positionality in their practice.



[I]f we know what we believe, what we value, what we do, and who we are, then it becomes easier to make a purposeful decision when forced to choose between multiple courses of action (Reason & Broido, 2011, p. 80). Reflexivity and intentionality have long been part of good practice, compelling the practitioner to more deeply analyze their subjectivity in relation to others and how their privileged and marginalized identities affect their decisions to act (Blimling, Whitt, & Associates, 1998; Harper, 2011). Similar to the ways in which researchers use positionality to inform the way a study is designed and implemented, equity-minded practitioners should attend to their own biases and assumptions as they interact with all students, and critically analyze how current policies and practices shape inclusive or hostile campus climates. Reflection with action can disrupt the status quo.

Researchers who study Latina/o/x educational inequities not only focus on the individual student, but also on context (i.e., the relationships among family, community, and school nested within larger sociopolitical environments) to more deeply understand the challenges that Latina/o/x students experience in moving toward and through higher education. Equity-minded practitioners invested in Latina/o/x student success should recognize that their decision to act or galvanize support around equity is also influenced by context: in this case, the organizational environment, which includes the abandoned institutional structures and approaches to doing business (Kimball & Ryder, 2014, p. 299).

Similar to scholars who display the value of positionality in cutting-edge research, Latina/o/x administrators are exemplars in bridging positionality and practice (Espino, Salazar, & Morin, 2016). Their stories of navigating higher education as students and as practitioners offer key examples of how positionality can influence career aspirations and a commitment to serving marginalized students. For the past two years, my research team has been interviewing Latina/o/x midlevel student affairs practitioners who aspire to senior-level positions in higher education (e.g., Dean of Students or Vice President of Student Affairs). Despite confronting racism and sexism in their educational journeys, navigating hostile work environments, and having limited access to role models and mentors, we found that Latina/o/x student affairs administrators demonstrate equity-based practices that are transforming college campuses. I offer Rubens (pseudonym) narrative; he is a self-identified Mexican, midlevel administrator in enrollment management at a large, public, four-year university in the Midwest.

When Ruben was an undergraduate, he had a wealth of mentors&that were professionals in higher ed and were also Latino and they just really saw me in places that I didnt see myself. Their mentorship served as a catalyst and inspired Ruben to dedicate his career to offering the same type of cultural nourishment and support for other Latino students and underrepresented students in general. As a first-generation college student, Ruben understood the privilege that he had to enroll in higher education and earn a doctorate:

[M]y family worked in the fields when I was growing up&. I am not doing this [work] for the title. Ive come way further than what [my family] could have even imagined and I owe it to them to be that positive change, to be that role model, that advocate for students that are also in the same position I was when I was their age.

Ruben views his work as an opportunity to solve complex issues and to be in positions to advocate for students and advocate for core principles that I believe in&access, equity, and diversity. Ruben believes that Latina/o/x students are often blamed for not succeeding in higher education, which absolves the institution of any responsibility&. [I]nstitutions have to take ownership and really be reflective of how the practices and policies that are in place that are not allowing students to be successful. He shared an example from a local community college, which had a 34% retention rate for Latina/o/x students. He submitted a one-year grant for a peer-mentoring program among the Latina/o/x student population. Mentors were selected based on their willingness to give back, their willingness to use their cultural capital, [and] their willingness to really engage and be role models for students. The retention rate doubled because of the program, with 80% of Latina/o/x students engaged in the program the following year. Ruben attributes this success to viewing students as experts about their experiences&the challenges they encounter, and the resilience they employ&. [The program] was providing them with an environment where they felt welcome [to] talk in their home language&about hard work&family&the sacrifices that our families have made&about being first-generation. Using his experiential knowledge and doctoral training, Ruben facilitated critical dialogues with the students, weaving together concepts such as social consciousness, funds of knowledge, cultural capital, to really create this environment where students felt nurtured and supported. His efforts led to an opportunity to bridge the community college with the public four-year university. Ruben is now applying the lessons he learned from working at the community college, as well as reflecting on his own journey, to conduct targeted recruitment within local schools&. I am a firm believer that an institution has to be reflective and welcoming of the local community as well as the state. Unfortunately, not all practitioners share his perspective. Ruben has had several conversations with

White advisors [who] dont really process or think about how their words and actions are [felt by students]. [T]hey might feel that they are just trying to do their advising job, and save the students from failing their classes, but the way they word it, students of color might feel like they are just being racist because&they are African Americans or Latinos [and] they are not doing too well in STEM. [I]t demoralizes students when we have conversations about why students are not being successful.

Ruben illustrates how his positionality reflects his passion for equity and justice:

I am also staying true to who I am and I make sure Latinos feel welcomed and that they feel like they bring richness to the institution and that they should always harness that&rather than feel like they have to eliminate it from their college experience.

He also acknowledges that his intersecting identities (i.e., heterosexual male) help him to be mindful of some of the privileges I have and being willing to be honest with people and genuine, and be willing to work and not shy away from some of our differences. Ruben finds value in leveraging his privileged and marginalized identities in creating institutional change: [W]hen we share our vulnerabilities&that [change] is not going to be easy, but its something that needs to happen, I think it can go a long way. However, Ruben also noted that not everyone is open to change or willing to have critical conversations about privilege and oppression.

Models have been constructed to direct practitioners through various steps in the process from theory to practical application (see Reason & Kimball, 2012). Based on my analysis of Rubens narrative and positionality, there are additional principles to consider that shape ones positionality as a practitioner.

1. Positionality is practiced through connection. Practitioners should practice their positionality by participating in difficult conversations with colleagues, supervisors, and students. The greatest test of positionality is vulnerability, openly sharing ones lived experiences and growth edges with someone else so that pathways of wisdom and validation can be opened among and between ourselves; (re)fram[ing] these lived experiences as legitimate, academically rigorous, and emancipatory projects (Espino, Vega, Rendón, Ranero, & Muñiz, 2012, p. 455). Forgiveness is practiced. Positionality in practice is action rooted in a collective consciousness that clearly points to injustice in higher education and calls for solutions to ensure equity.

2. Positionality offers strategic enrichment. It is more than a litany of identities. Positionality is a deeper discussion of power and the ways in which institutional agents can share or reserve that power on campus and through policy. Racism is woven into the fabric of our practice and we have to meticulously de-thread it, and re-stitch the fabric.

3. Positionality is contextual. Similar to the work of researchers who strive to situate themselves in the literature, practitioners should situate themselves within the context of their institutions. Ones practice is not solely a philosophy enacted by the practitioner; rather, practice is also influenced by institutional context and environment (Kimball & Ryder, 2012). One must trace their actual position across time and history. How is the position situated within the office structure, the organizational structure, and within policy? Is there congruence between the values of the individual and the values of the institution, acknowledging that the other influences both?

4. Positionality challenges essentialism. It supports the creation of a collective consciousness that details the multiple strands of lived experience that comprise the researcher, the administrator, the student within the academic organization (Espino, Muñoz, & Marquez Kiyama, 2010; Espino et al., 2012). Every practitioner will have a different positionality based on lived experience and their intersectional positions within an oppressive society; therefore, their interactions with students will leave a unique trace. This principle supports the values of student affairs practice, which centers the holistic development of an individual student.

5. Positionality shifts based on time and context. Higher education is an ever-changing environment with daily challenges and shifting priorities. Preparation is key to maintaining flexibility throughout the course of a day. Preparation includes daily reflection on the ways in which ones positionality affects ones interactions with colleagues, staff members, and students, as well as how it influences the interpretation of policies and decision-making processes. Similar to how positionality can shift when a researcher is interacting with a new participant or approaching data analysis with a different perspective, a practitioners positionality will also shift and may require critical reflection and action to address implicit bias and racist leanings that have permeated the subconscious and led to inequitable practice.

No practitioner or researcher, regardless of subjectivities, is immune from racism. However, the more we practice positionality and reflexivity, the more attuned we can be to our power; we can acknowledge our discomfort, and then right ourselves on the path again. We must be prepared to press into the discomfort because issues of race and racism will inevitably greet us in our daily work.


I bear witness to the deep institutionalized oppression that fragments all of us,

that denies me the opportunity to live out all of my identities simultaneously.

Particular forms of knowledge are privileged. Lived experience and theoretical, methodological, and interpretive reflections of the minoritized are often perceived as divergent to rigorous research that helps to trouble Eurocentric, dominant ideologies within educational research. Whose voice is privileged through the research? Whose voice is silenced and for what purpose? Are the spaces that we create through our written and spoken truths open to laying bare all that we are? Do we, inevitably, silence those who do not fit our definitions of Latinidad? I continually wrestle as a researcher with these questions. It is about who I am as the subject and object of the research. These questions are about understanding where I am situated in the discourse of Latinas/os/x in higher education and my own strivings to belong despite my varied privileges in this world. What if the answers to these questions are truths about my and our privilege as scholars and practitioners? Truthfully, we reproduce the language of the colonizer and employ racist ways of knowing even in the quest of creating emancipatory projects (Scheurich & Young, 1997). Truths that we place under the covers, the identities that grant us access and opportunity, all in the name of belonging, of not wanting to be part of those who do not understand their privilege.

To draw power from the edges, to live and work in spaces of resistance, we must confront, disrupt, and deconstruct the very systems of which we are a part, the very programs under which we are trained, the very structures that reward us, the very curricula that educate us. How do we create not just safe spaces, but visionary spaces that empower and encourage Latina/o/x students, faculty, and administrators to find community in predominantly White spaces while scraping away layers of oppression that bind us through institutionalized traditions, policies, and practices? It will take effort and vulnerability for this type of transformation to occur. The reproducing of structures that have kept us bound must stop and we should reenvision our institutions. What would higher education look like if race and racism were brought to the fore in institutions woven from a fabric of inequity? The discourse on race and racism is a process of ebb and flow, brought to the forefront when it is convenient to the dominant culture. We must press into the discomfort of uncovering aspects of privilege in the discourse and in daily practice, even when it is not convenient. We need to deeply theorize about issues of oppression and then take action to combat racism through our activism as researchers and scholar-practitioners. It is healing to make those tensions present and welcomed to remind ourselves that we are whole when we meld all aspects of ourselves, even the aspects that oppress from within. I am committed to healing through reflection and action.


I shoulder a load that I willingly take, although at a cost.
When I am unsure of where I am going,
when I fear that what I am doing is not enough,
I think of those who came before me.
I remember that the hands I use to type are the hands of those who toiled in the fields, on
        the streets, in factories.
The voice I use is the voice of those who shouted against racism and of those
         who whispered love in spite of it all.

We want so badly to move beyond Racism [sic] to a postracist space, a more comfortable space, but we are only prolonging the pain and leaving unfinished a business that could liberate some of our energies (Anzaldúa, 1999, p. xxii). How can we as researchers, scholar-practitioners, and self-declared change agents not feel the sense of urgency to transform educational structures, policies, and practices to ensure educational equity and opportunity for Latina/o/x students, faculty, administrators, and their families? We are living in a critical time in which we must declare our moral responsibility to confront the ways in which we are complicit in the everyday racism embedded within our daily practice through our silence, our hedging, and our unwillingness to dialogue with papelitos guardados in hand. If we are to dedicate ourselves to uncovering and dismantling systemic racism, even in the unspoken and the hidden, we need to reflect more critically on our positions in this society and within the academic organizations in which we work and then take action to eradicate the insidiousness of racism. Positionality offers a valuable strategy for evaluating the imposition of values that privilege some and marginalize others, that theorize about difference and diversity but fail to take the necessary steps to hold academic organizations responsible. Rather than remaining silent and silenced, institutional agents, researchers, and scholar-practitioners must focus on offering evidence-based, equity-focused solutions that will amplify systemic change. To participate in this long-term emancipatory project, equity-minded researchers and scholar-practitioners must reflect on our knowledge (personal and professional), confront embedded assumptions, and disclose how our lived experiences filter our perceptions of power and the racial order in higher education. This is a call to action so that we can find wholeness for ourselves, and bring healing to our communities and on our campuses.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 14, 2018, p. 1-16
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22387, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:15:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Michelle Espino
    University of Maryland
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE M. ESPINO is Assistant Professor in the Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education Department at the University of Maryland. Dr. Espinoís research interests focus on the individual, organizational, and community factors that affect educational attainment for racial/ethnic minorities, particularly for Latinas/os/x. Her most recent work has focused on the critical contributions of underrepresented minority faculty at research extensive universities, which was published in the journal Sociology of Race & Ethnicity, and on the valuable example of Freedom University, an educational sanctuary for students without documentation, which was published in the Review of Higher Education.
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