There's another story to tell about low-income rural students and their potential for achievement at top universities. Nobody tells it better than the graduates themselves.
I am one of “those” students who were the subject of NPR’s recent story “Elite Colleges Struggle to Recruit Smart, Low Income Kids,” the students Francisco Guajardo wrote about February 12 in the Daily Yonder.
I also saw the comment Ian Akers left on the Yonder, and a few days afterward, participated on a Skype call between Ian and several staff members of Llano Grande, the community education organization Guajardo founded in South Texas, where I grew up. Over time, and with the prompting of these latest experiences, I have come to realize a few things about my beginnings, my education, and subsequent achievements.
I am a proud graduate of Stanford University and an even prouder alumna of the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development. As a teenager, I was first introduced to the teachings of Dr. Francisco Guajardo in his history class at Edcouch-Elsa High School, then one of the poorest school districts in Texas. I would not truly appreciate what I learned through the Center’s pedagogical practices until I was a student at a prestigious institution that challenged me to question my identity. I understand and believe wholeheartedly in the work that the Llano Grande Center performs in building community, valuing individuals, and helping tell the counter-narrative. I am living proof that a rural, Mexicana can successfully graduate from a prominent, private university and return home with an acute sense of self and a deep obligation to pay it forward to a community that gave so much to me.
It is all about community.
The community of Edcouch-Elsa helped raise me, shaping the person I have become. My parents owned a small video store and restaurant, Casa Video & Munchies Snack Bar, smack between the two small towns. Everyone knew my parents, and everyone knew my five sisters and me (most people remember us as the family who took up an entire pew in church every Sunday morning). The community saw us grow up, saw us accomplish many things in school (sharing many of the same teachers, we were affectionately known as the “smart Cardoza girls”), and welcomes us back with open arms every time we visit.
When I left to study at Stanford, I left with the mindset that I wanted to experience something different. I wanted to get away from my immersion in Mexican American culture and be exposed and enlightened by other cultures, an experience that Stanford readily provided. However, by my junior year in college, I realized that what I yearned for was a sense of belonging, a belonging not unlike what I felt when I lived back home in rural South Texas, a belonging that Peter Block defines as membership in and ownership of a community. Fortunately, Stanford also provided that sense of belonging for me.
Unlike most of my Edcouch-Elsa friends who have made their way to these distinguished universities, I did not fit the conventional college student profile. My senior year in high school, I discovered that I was pregnant, and as I gave my valedictory speech, I truly doubted the feasibility of my dream to attend Stanford. However, a phone call to the admissions office made clear that Stanford wanted me there: they agreed to allow me to defer my admission for a year, have my baby, and even offered to increase an already generous scholarship to allow me to live in graduate housing with my new family.
I am forever indebted to the generous donors at Stanford who provided me with the opportunity and, more importantly, the resources to make my dream a reality. Stanford stamped my seal of membership, supported me along the way, and allowed me to achieve success. I humbly accepted the challenge and courageously achieved my goals, as any hardworking and talented kid can do with the right amount of support. It was a worthy investment.
The ownership of community was a bit more challenging. As a non-traditional student at Stanford, I found it difficult to fit in, but Stanford allowed me and a few others with similar circumstances to establish a student organization and create our own community; in elite-college fashion, Stanford made available the resources to achieve our goals. Most importantly, the organization helped us to encourage each other during stressful times, whether educational, financial, or personal.
Furthermore, the Chicano/Latino community at Stanford embraced me when I finally did realize how proud I was to be a Mexican American student and joined the campus organization. In defining who I was and what community I belonged to, I had come full circle.
Success, I’ve learned, also depends on social capital. As emphasized in the working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Missing ‘One-Offs,’” a teenager at Edcouch-Elsa or another rural school like ours has limited opportunity to be in contact with students from the Ivy League or other nationally-ranked, research institutions. I would not have known where to begin the application process had it not been for my mentors who allowed me to dream big and handed me the application. I had never heard of Stanford University when I first picked up its viewbook. But the social capital that had been built in my community in the years before I graduated from high school allowed me to tap the knowledge base, experience, and advocacy-impulses of those around me; I was fortunate to have access to that capital.
Institutions like Stanford cannot expect rural students to know about them simply because they are nationally-recognized and ranked. Top colleges and universities have an obligation to seek out the best and the brightest from around the world, not solely from select urban areas. But if Stanford and other prestigious schools do not change their methods of recruitment, then rural communities have to learn for themselves how local students can apply and stand the best chances of being admitted and succeeding; they have to build their own social and cultural capital. It is not easy to do—has not been easy for us—but it is a goal worth pursuing. It begins with an awareness that the effort is necessary and worthwhile.
Finally, it is about action, collective social and political action on the part of rural people. As alumni of Ivy League and other elite institutions, we have an obligation to our home communities and to the institutions that educated us to recruit other students like ourselves. Legacy students attend because their parents or other family members attended; it is a social-capital privilege. High-income, high-achieving students attend top schools because current recruiting strategies make them easy targets, and they are fortunate to have the social, cultural, and financial resources to attend such institutions.
However, there are thousands of other “smart Cardoza girls” (and boys) out there in rural communities eagerly anticipating an opportunity of a lifetime to prove themselves. Stanford has the resources and the ability to find them—these institutions need to utilize their rural alumni. And we, as alums of these great institutions, need to push a little harder to make sure that they do.
My commitment, and I believe the commitment of the Llano Grande Center, is that we are willing to engage any community in conversation about how to do this. We have been doing this for 20 years, have learned some lessons along the way, and have built a level of community courage to fight against debilitating stereotypes that say that Mexican American families and kids are not smart or do not care about higher education. We care a great deal, and we want to share that story with others.
Lisa Cardoza is Chief of Staff at The University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, TX, and a doctoral student in Educational Leadership.