Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Disrupting the Status Quo to Support Latino Students from Immigrant Families

Driven in part by massive demographic shifts in the U.S. population, education and social behavioral research has increasingly attended to the growing diversity of the student population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos accounted for more than 50% of the U.S. population growth between 2010 and 2020. While the country’s white population is shrinking, the Latino population grew by 23% in the last decade and now makes up almost 19% of the U.S. population. Although the raw numbers are worthy of attention, the change rate—and what it means for how schools and other systems serve students—may be even more important, especially given that the K12 education system is not built to accommodate such rapid demographic shifts.

NCES data show that, although there has been overall progress in improving high school graduation rates, the nation’s Latino student dropout rate is 65% higher than White students and almost 40% higher than Black students. Only 20% of Latinos aged 25 to 29 have obtained a college degree—the lowest degree attainment rate of any racial/ethnic subgroup. Growing evidence shows that the disparities in college participation among Latino and first-generation college students may become even more pronounced as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

Since 2015, with the support of two IES-funded NCER grants, my team of colleagues and I have led work designed to challenge and innovate how schools support the positive development and college access and success for Latino students from immigrant families. Our Juntos Project was designed to create a new intervention model working directly with teachers, school leaders, and parents of Latino middle school students. The goal of the project was to address common challenges confronting immigrant families as they navigate the U.S. education system, to use effective strategies for recognizing and transforming teacher bias, and to create a school climate that centers equity leadership and builds authentic family-school partnerships—all with the promise to improve academic and school success for Latino students. The second project, Project LEAPS (Latino Education After Public School), which is currently underway, extends the model we developed in Juntos by working with teachers, parents, and school counselors to support the postsecondary readiness (and ultimately the college access and success) of Latino students as they transition from middle school to high school.

Through this work, we continue to learn important lessons about how to be disruptive given that current approaches have too often failed to make a lasting impact on nurturing the academic success and positive behavioral health of Latino students. Here are a few of those lessons:

Parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life. As much as education researchers and professionals attend to the role educators play in student life, our approach is designed to capitalize on the strengths of Latino families and the deep cultural value of familismo, which prioritizes dedication, connectedness, and loyalty to family, as essential targets of our intervention. Notwithstanding the influence of adult agents inside the education system, parents (that is, all of the adults in a child’s life who play a major role in raising them) play the most important and sustained role in raising healthy children. Although the education system frequently frames parents and home environments as “the problem” when considering the challenges of underserved students, data from the NCES National Household Education Survey show that parents of students of color are as likely or more likely to be engaged in their children’s education (for example, checking on homework completion, monitoring school performance) than their white peers. This is especially true for Latino parents, including those who are Spanish speaking and those who have low educational attainment themselves.

Move from a deficit framing to an asset framing. Undoubtedly, many Latino students and their families experience challenges as they navigate the education system. However, many of these challenges are not of their making. The fact that we can mark disparities in educational outcomes and access to higher education by race/ethnicity, poverty, rurality and other factors should be a source of outrage. None of these demographic characteristics should be correlated with school success or can legitimately be described as causal. The true causes stem from deeply rooted inequities embedded in the education system. One way to shift away from a student or family deficit framing is to focus on a more interesting question: What makes students, families, schools, and communities thrive in the face of difficult circumstances? The answers to this question can help us leverage assets that too often go untapped in service of student success.

Attend to within-group variation. Like other racial/ethnic groups, Latinos are not monolithic. Comparative designs in which outcomes for Latino students are contrasted with White students or students from other groups often contribute little to nuanced understandings about how variables linked to these group identifications might explain differences in outcomes. Ample research shows that within-group variation among Latinos on factors such as country of origin, nativity, generational history, language, time in U.S. residency, context of reception for immigrants, and acculturation level are more important in understanding the nature of risk and protection around academic and social behavioral adjustment than are between-group differences. In designing intervention programs for the families and students we serve, our goals are to understand these sources of variation and carefully attend to them in our development work.  


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.

Charles Martinez (@c_martinez) is the dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, and the founding director of the Texas Center for Equity Promotion. He is a first-generation college graduate and a third-generation Mexican American. His Project LEAPS co-investigators are Heather McClure, University of Oregon, and Elma Lorenzo-Blanco, University of Texas at Austin.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Expectations Matter: Understanding Student Learning Outcomes and Implicit Bias in the Early Childhood Classroom

Educators bring implicit biases to the classroom which may impact discipline and development for students from historically disadvantaged households and communities, particularly students of color. Research has shown that some teachers show implicit (and explicit) preferences towards White students versus students of color. These implicit biases and lower expectations of students of color may negatively influence children’s early learning and development. With an IES exploration grant, Drs. Brian Boyd, Iheoma Iruka and Keith Payne are examining the relationship between malleable factors such as implicit bias, teacher expectations, and teacher-child interactions and student learning outcomes. Taking place in early education programs across 10 states and the District of Columbia, this study will examine links between implicit bias and school readiness skills in pre-school age children.

Bennett Lunn, a Truman-Albright Fellow at IES, asked Dr. Iruka about her work and background. Below are her responses.

How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?

I am a Black woman, born in the United States but with parents who were born in Nigeria. I am the African diaspora that is rarely discussed because people see Black people as homogeneous. I was not always proud of my African roots or of my American roots – there is a double-edged sword in being a Black person in America and being an American Black in Nigeria. I was not always proud of being a Black person in America because of constant reminders about how much I have to overcome. I think my experiences as a Black woman in the U.S. with direct roots to Africa (my name is Nigerian), and who grew up in poverty (but did not know that then), give me an edge and a drive compared to those who just study poverty. Even when my papers and grants get rejected, I still know my experiences are valuable to me, my children, my family, and those fighting for justice. I bring all of who I am to my talks, papers, mentoring, networks, and partnerships. For me, there is no Iheoma without the village that I am a part of, my ancestors, my Nigerian and African diasporic heritage, and my experiences. I realize that my gender, race, culture, and other intersectional identities continue to shape my career and, most importantly, the journey I am on.

How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in education?

I see my research as part of a tapestry that shapes how people see others, especially those who are often made to feel invisible, like young Black boys and girls, their families, and their communities. I hope that my research is more than just “DEI,” which is the phrase of the season. I don’t mind that it is, but I hope it is not only for the moment, especially when discussing racial equity and anti-racism. I want my research and other collaborative work to be about seeing the humanity, the beauty, the joy, the assets, and the possibilities of those we often see and treat as invisible. Examining the role of implicit bias in the classroom is the focus of my current IES-funded research, and my most recent book, Don’t Look Away: Embracing Anti-Bias Classrooms, is a call to action for all educators, professionals, and others to not look away from the injustices directed at minoritized groups, especially Black people. We cannot look away; we must act and continue to act until justice has won. In the words of Malcom X, “Speaking like this doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression”. I hope my research, my talks, and my entire body of work cause researchers and those who fund research to look at themselves and ask how they can do better with the weapon they have–research!

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

There is so much that can improve the enterprise of research and science. In early childhood education, as well as in other areas, it takes more than practice to create more equitable outcomes—research is needed to examine how systems create inequities. My RICHER framework, which provides actionable steps toward addressing bias and racism, is an ode to researchers and scholars, especially White scholars, about how they can do better in their science when their participants are non-white.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?

My biggest challenge is myself. While I have always had confidence in my skills, I was not always sure how direct I could be, especially with my White mentors, colleagues, and peers. There were times I felt I had to use coded language. As my journey has gone on, or because I am getting older and don’t have the energy to code, I have become more direct so the actions can be straightforward and clear. It is also crucial that I bring my lived experiences, including being the mother of two young Black children in America and wanting to see their experiences be even more equitable than mine. I want them to understand that their heritage, language, skin color, gender, and whatever other identities they have should be embraced because that will make them unique and motivate them to get through all the obstacles, including rejection, which are part of academia. I want them to embody Black joy!

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

Lean into the RICHER framework. You can’t truly support scholars from historically underrepresented groups, especially Black ones, unless you have a sense of critical consciousness. I would say that I have been fortunate in having mentors who did not question my skill or talent but created opportunities even before I thought I was ready. When I think about those specific individuals, I realize that they were mentors who supported many people of color. These mentors cared about me, not just the scholar but the person, and they still do. To support underrepresented researchers, you have to see “us,” not just our color or race, or ethnicity. Scholars of color are multi-faceted and bring a lot to the table because we have had to live in multiple worlds and speak multiple languages.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

First, find your village of peers, scholars, and mentors, whether through your university, professional organization, or social organization. You want a place where you can lay your burdens down, have joy, and just be your full self. Second, be truthful and authentic about your journey. Allow mistakes to guide you and realize that mistakes ensure growth and do not define you. And third, be sure to have fun and enjoy what you do. While the research I do is emotionally laden, it is joyful and motivational because I get to be part of a larger community focused on justice and asset-building. When I can bring my whole self into my research and work, I know I am doing the right thing. So always ask yourself, am I doing what I am supposed to be doing, and how do I know?


This blog is part of a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For other blog posts related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility, please see here.

Dr. Iheoma U. Iruka is a Research Professor of Public Policy and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This interview was produced and edited by Bennett Lunn, Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

 

Developing Research Training Programs (Part 2): Advice from IES-funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Their Partners

This blog post featuring advice from IES-funded historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partners on developing research training programs is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs.

 

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to encourage undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and master’s students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in education research. The Pathways program grants were made to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and their partners to provide one year of mentored research training. We asked the leadership teams from our six initial Pathways Programs to share their lessons learned on establishing research training programs. In this post (part two), we share lessons learned from Pathways Programs based at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partner institutions. In part one, we shared the lessons learned from the Pathways programs based at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs).

 

RISE Training Program 

University of Maryland, College Park/Bowie State University (HBCU)

Leadership: Shenika Hankerson, William Drakeford, Sean Coleman, Megan Stump, Debbie O’Banion (not pictured)

 

Establishing cross-campus partnerships is important. Students in the RISE Program have benefited from interacting with individuals in a variety of formats and from a variety of backgrounds. Students meet with faculty mentors, graduate students, and administrators and faculty to discuss research, participate in professional development, and learn about graduate school. Similar to the mantra of “it takes a village,” no training program will be as beneficial as it could be without larger campus support. Make sure to establish your program, know its goals and aims, and share this information widely with the campus community to create buy-in and generate support for the program. The more that students from underrepresented populations are able to interact with individuals who look like them from a variety of academic and administrative contexts, the more these students will be able to visualize themselves in various roles and develop plans to reach these future academic and career goals.

 

RISE Training Program

North Carolina Central University (HBCU)/University of North Carolina Wilmington

Leadership: Wynetta Lee, Marta Sanchez, Nina Smith, Rene Johnson

 

Overall, our experience implementing RISE has been positive and rewarding. We would absolutely do it again if given the chance to do so. We have learned many lessons along the way that other institutions (especially MSIs) should consider when developing undergraduate research training programs:

  • University support, beyond project funding, is crucial for the full development of students (academically, emotionally, financially, etc.) as their needs are manifested.
  • Unlimited access to the PI/Co-PI is very important as a means of fostering students’ sense of belonging. It is important to reassign duties for those who take this on as it will morph into full-time work.
  • Personnel selection is very important. It is a long-term commitment that requires considerable time. Post-tenure personnel are best as the key personnel for the project.
  • It is important to be flexible and able to pivot, without losing the purpose of the program. The unexpected is inevitable.
  • Institutions must be willing to be an authentic partner with the project, ready to stand in the gap for essential needs that are not covered with external funding.
  • Many students are first-generation college and are unaware of the higher education landscape, especially when it comes to credentialing beyond the undergraduate program. It takes time for the idea of graduate education to take root as a possibility for them.
  • Fellows are vulnerable yet resilient—their research capacity should not be underestimated.
  • Continual reinforcement of their sense of belonging in education and social science research is critical for success.
  • Cognitive lessons will sometimes be on hold to address “life happens” situations. As it is with students, “life happens” with mentors and instructors, too.

 

PURPOSE Program

Florida State University/Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (HBCU)

Leadership: Jeannine E. Turner, Peggy P. Auman, Alysia D. Roehrig, Tamara Bertrand Jones, Novel Tani, Erik Rawls, Steven Williams (not pictured)

 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) typically provide support for developing student cultural and social identities. We recommend tapping into this aspect and supporting student development of researcher-identities by focusing on social justice research. We created an interdisciplinary research network by inviting scholars with existing projects to partner with us, thereby expanding our capacity. Before partnering with community organizations, we recommend assessing your institution's existing research capacity and assets that are available to support student research development. If your project is a collaboration between two universities—as ours is between a predominantly White institution and historically Black university—you can share resources and build upon opportunities on both campuses. We believe that research opportunities are shaped by institutional cultures, and cross-cultural collaborations can raise awareness about structural inequities and the benefits of cross-cultural research experiences. It is important to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion across the schools and pool resources to provide professional development and research experiences that broaden and build on student knowledge and interests. Furthermore, we have found over the years that past fellows have a commitment to future fellows. Past fellows want to contribute to the development of current fellows as scholars and are willing to serve as peer mentors and presenters at seminars where they share their knowledge, skills, and research passions. Linking past and future fellows allows us to build and sustain a communal network. Such communal networks help us to provide not only research support but also nurture research trainees as whole people who are able to sustain work-life balance. Thus, personal and research identities positively reinforce one another and may buffer the stress from demanding academic environments.  


Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions.

Developing Research Training Programs (Part 1): Advice from IES-funded Hispanic Serving Institutions

This blog post featuring advice from IES-funded Hispanic Serving Institutions on developing research training programs, is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs

 

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to encourage undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and master’s students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in education research. The Pathways program grants were made to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and their partners to provide one year of mentored research training. We asked the leadership teams from our six initial Pathways Programs to share their lessons learned on establishing research training programs. In part one of this blog, we share the lessons learned from the Pathways programs based at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). In part two, we share lessons learned from the Pathways programs based at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partner institutions.

 

Pathways: Successful Transitions to and Through Higher Education

California State University, Sacramento (HSI, AANAPISI)

Leadership: Jana Noel, Timothy Fong, Jacqueline Brooks, Erica Zamora

 

We have five areas for universities to consider that wish to develop undergraduate training programs:

Create an interdisciplinary training team. Draw on the strengths of the wide range of researchers on your campus and beyond. An interdisciplinary team provides an expanded range of perspectives on both the research methods and the questions that are important to pursue within education. All are important and valuable to the expansion of research that will make a difference to the lives of underrepresented students.

Develop partnerships. Develop partnerships across departments and colleges as well as in the community. Our apprenticeship sites span the university and into the community and include university research centers and institutes, K-12 offices of education, and non-profit public policy centers. Apprenticeship partnerships provide fellows with the opportunity to be part of a team that actively conducts research into pressing educational issues and contributes to the research needed to make practice and policy decisions within your region and state.

Intentionally match mentors to fellows. As much as possible, match the fellows’ diversity when selecting research mentors. Mentors provide support on learning new research methodology, asking new questions, working as a team, preparing to present research at conferences, and preparing for graduate school.

Choose a broad research theme. Choose a broad research theme that will appeal to a wide range of students. In our case, we study the barriers and supports for underrepresented students in K-12, community college, and higher education. This allows underrepresented students at MSIs to know that they are welcome in the program and that their experiences and voices will be valued.

Provide continuity across cohorts. Fellows in our program speak at recruiting events for future cohorts, participate in panel discussions for future cohorts, and truly serve as our best source of encouragement for future fellows. The continuity persists during and beyond the program as fellows engage in their academic journeys together.

 

AWARDSS Training Program

University of Arizona (HSI)/College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arizona

Leadership: Michelle Perfect, Brandy Perkl, Sara Chavarria, Andrew Huerta

 

Our number one piece of advice for establishing undergraduate research training programs is to add in bridges over the biggest barriers to URM participation.

Our Pathways program (AWARDSS) was built on the idea that (1) support from campus programs and (2) intentional mentoring are vital aspects of promoting participation in research from traditionally underrepresented students. For that reason, we have learned that undergraduate research training programs within MSIs need to build on what is already present. Add in the elements you know your students need most, such as financial support, increased access to resources, and focus on improvement of specific skills.

To achieve this in our practice, we built a complementary, hybrid, add-on program to the University of Arizona’s well-established and award-winning Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium (UROC) experiences. UROC provides the primary coursework and faculty, while we deliver the add-ons that allow for underrepresented minority (URM) student participation. We focused initially on providing additional funding for our students’ experiences. Then, we added a required inclusion-oriented mentor training to bolster the intentionality of those relationships and the quality of this potentially transformative relationship. This often allows us to support underrepresented mentors, as well. Mentoring does not occur in a vacuum though, and the latest research shows that those with a developmental network outperform those without one. Thus, we staffed the program specifically to serve as a supportive developmental network for our students. Finally, we assessed and trained students in academic areas of need (for example, statistics) at both the cohort and individual levels. 

We also suggest that leaders of undergraduate research training programs continuously examine their practices and adjust their models accordingly. We plan to further train our staff in more inclusive and anti-racist practices ensuring that the entire AWARDSS network is informed, intentional, and engaged in supportive practices from day one. 

 

Pathways Program 

University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA; HSI)

Leadership: Guadalupe Carmona, Ann Marie Ryan, Francesca Bronder

 

Our goals for the program are to 1) broaden participation of undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds in doctoral study, and 2) develop a pipeline of talented interdisciplinary researchers who bring fresh ideas, approaches, and perspectives to addressing the challenges of inequalities that exist in P-20 educational experiences, transitions, and outcomes. 

Through a structured program design, undergraduates can be exposed to research at an early academic stage and discover that through academic and scientific research, they can achieve their passion to systematically improve education and transform their local communities. By learning how research is conducted, closely working with faculty mentors, finding their own research focus, and developing their work, our UTSA Pathways Fellows have gained in academic and personal development, self-confidence, a sense of accomplishment and peer support, independence of work and thought, and have become more academically resilient. For many of them, UTSA Pathways has opened doors and facilitated access to several graduate schools. For others, it has helped them apply their newly acquired research skills to a variety of professional fields and become more marketable in their chosen careers.

We identified three central concepts for UTSA Pathways that we think would be helpful for others who are developing undergraduate research training programs: Empowerment, Transformation, and Inspiration.

  • Empowerment. Once unheard student voices are now becoming part of our education research community as fellows actively participate in academic and research activities. Your program should empower students to form their own identities as fellows and help to extend this empowerment to their personal lives.
  • Transformation. Our Pathways program has generated change in multiple communities, built new collaborations, recruited new faculty, and obtained supporters devoted to Pathways and its goals of broadening participation of historically underrepresented voices. We suggest that your program identify the critical partners and potential levers of change specific to your program’s model and goals.
  • Inspiration. We have found that our fellows’ resilience and commitment has been channeled through their active engagement and dissemination of their research that, for most, begins with UTSA Pathways. And our mentors’ passion and generosity has guided and supported a new generation of scholars in educational research. We encourage you to create an environment of hospitality and engagement that will embrace a passionate group of young scholars to participate in their communities of research and practice.

 


Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions.  

El Camino…The Path of a Young Latina in the Making

Formally, I am known as Dr. Lorena Aceves, but you can just call me Lorena. I am a first generation (first in my family to graduate high school and college) Latina scholar. I recently completed my PhD in human development and family studies (HDFS) at the Pennsylvania State University. Currently, I am working as a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start. In my current role, I work on all things related to Head Start from issues facing the Head Start workforce to considering the impact that COVID-19 has had on the daily lives of Head Start children. Given that September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to share my camino (path) with the hopes of inspiring other Latinx students and to demonstrate the beauty of Hispanic excellence in education!

How It Started

My journey into higher education began before I could even remember. My amazing parents are two immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico. Their journey of migration was fueled by the desire to open more doors of opportunity for themselves and their future family. They settled in southern California, where they would start building the foundation of values and motivation that would lead me to my PhD.

In California, my parents had their first interaction with opportunity and education for their daughter with Head Start. As a four-year-old, Head Start gave me a step up in my educational career and connected my parents to resources and services that could increase our familial wellbeing. The journey here was just getting started when my parents decided that it was time to leave southern California for Arizona. In Arizona, my parents were able to earn better wages and purchase a home in a good school district. This opportunity was not as accessible to them in California. This move, as my mom always says, “(as difficult as it was) was the best thing we could have done educationally for you and your younger brother.”

I started my elementary education in the Gilbert Public Schools school district. It was when I got to high school that a major educational opportunity opened for me—the founding of Gilbert Classical Academy (GCA), a public college prep school. GCA was a saving grace for this little Latina who had every aspiration to go to college but had no clue where to even begin! It gave me all the tools and preparation I needed to make it to college, and I did. I was admitted to 80% of the colleges I applied to and continued my higher education at the University of Arizona (UA). 

Moving Away and Embracing My Latina Identity

After high school graduation, I moved two hours south of home to attend the UA. This move was a BIG deal for this eldest Mexican daughter. My parents were not happy about me living in a dorm, but they knew it was necessary to achieve that “American Dream” that we always talked about where I would never have to scrub toilets as my mother had done most of her life.

Life at UA was amazing. I got to embrace my Latina identity because, for once in my life, I was finally surrounded by people who looked like me and had the same familial experiences. I also got to explore all my potential career options. I started college wanting to be a pediatrician but ended up finding my passion in the HDFS major. I loved the idea of studying human beings, especially in the context of their families. I finally was going to be able to understand my family and culture from a scholarly lens.

In my third year of college, I was unsure about what I wanted to do post-graduation. I knew I wanted to pursue graduate education; I just didn’t know for what. And that’s when I stumbled upon research, which ultimately led me to my PhD. Before this moment, I had no idea what a PhD was, but I was sold on pursuing one because being able to use research to support Latinx youth and families seemed like a dream come true.

In my last year of college, I participated in a program to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies. The program set me up for success in graduate school. With the program’s help, I was able to gain social capital and academic skills I did not have as a first-generation student, which are critical for successfully pursuing a graduate degree. With the help of the program’s staff and training, I was admitted to 8 out of the 10 doctoral programs that I applied to! I ultimately decided to pursue my PhD at Penn State. This little Arizona girl had no idea what she had signed up for by leaving sunny warm weather for cold, gloomy central Pennsylvania. At Penn State, my research focused on examining the cultural, familial, and individual level factors that contribute to Latinx youth’s academic outcomes.

I started graduate school with the goal of becoming a professor to continue this kind of research and helping other Latinx students like me attain their PhDs. That dream quickly evolved after a few internships at the U.S. Department of Education, including with IES, as well as the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics (formerly known as the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative). It was thanks to IES that I was even able to pursue these internships. As a graduate student, I was an IES predoctoral fellow, which afforded me opportunities to do the research I was interested in, as well as pursue these non-traditional graduate experiences. Through these internships, I quickly learned that I could do more. I learned that there is great need for Latinx scholars like myself in federal spaces, where decisions about funding and policies are happening. I became passionate about federal service, which led me to my current postdoctoral position.

Moving Forward

My main goal with my newly blossoming career as a doctora is to be able to work for a federal agency where I can use my skills and training to serve diverse communities, particularly communities of color. Federal leadership is still not reflective of the communities that make up the United States. I hope to serve in a federal leadership position in the future to represent the communities of color and make our leadership more reflective of its citizens. I plan to give voice to Latinx children, youth, and families of this country that need to be heard. Juntos podemos (Together, we can)!


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.

Lorena Aceves (Lorena.Aceves@acf.hhs.gov) is a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start.

This guest blog was produced by Caroline Ebanks (Caroline.Ebanks@ed.gov), Program Officer, National Center for Education Research.