Assimilation – A Four-Letter Word?
There is no simple answer. Assimilation simply means to adapt or adjust to a new environment. For Latinos in the workplace, the dynamic around assimilation is much more complex than simply adjusting eating habits or learning to speak English. In fact, “acculturation” is probably a more accurate term. Rather than erasing one set of traditions to accept another, acculturation involves the merging of cultures. Latinos do a lot of acculturation.
Still, “assimilation” is the more common term – and many consider it a dirty word. It implies a black-and-white view of the world and American society. If we are really honest,, a degree of assimilation is bound to happen. Some of this occurs organically through peer influences and popular culture like language, music and culinary preferences. Other adjustments will require conscious effort like learning English and colloquialisms. While certain elements of assimilation are inevitable, some will need to be resisted such as English-only movements. Life is about finding a healthy balance.
In 2007, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert on gender and workplace issues and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, conducted a study of corporate leaders and Latina employees. On the one hand, Latinas were valued for their strong work ethic and loyalty. They were also rated highly on their aptitude for collaboration, family values and community outreach as valuable characteristics for transferable workplace skills.
It was also evident from the study that negative stereotypes and stigma about Latinas undermined their progress. Some personality traits that are valued in Latino culture were detrimental to women’s growth in the workplace. In spite of being articulate, strong communicators, Latinas were passed over for promotions due to a perceived lack of assertiveness and inability or hesitance to speak up for themselves and their ideas or to “toot their own horns.”
Finally, many Latinas were found to have left the corporate world due to a strong feeling of isolation. Often the only Hispanic individuals at their offices, they lacked role models and relatable colleagues.
Why does this matter to higher education professionals?
We often refer to colleges as microcosms of the real world. Not unlike the corporate environment, colleges that are perceived by Latinos to lack a sense of community will experience high attrition among Hispanics. Latino students thrive in community. Conversely, students who feel isolated or discriminated against will not be retained and will not complete their degrees. Given the baggage that many Latino students already bring with them to college, it is plausible that isolation and discrimination simply become too much for them to handle. Many are already behind academically due to sub par secondary experiences. On top of that, many struggle financially. If making friends or engaging socially is added to the equation, retention and completion become all the more difficult.
The Pipeline. A Pew Foundation study found that there are 17 states where Latino children comprised at least 20% of public school kindergartners in 2012. With 17% of the nation’s current population identifying as Hispanic, this data is significant to the pipeline. College-bound Latinos will need guidance from administrators who understand how to integrate Latino cultural values with their educational goals.
Cultural Capital. Latino students often come from lower performing schools. What may be perceived as behavioral deficits may simply be a lack of cultural capital that promote social mobility. Higher education professionals can be of assistance to students in this area.
Sense of Belonging. Community and a sense of belonging are important factors in Latino retention and college completion. Administrators can play a vital role in helping these students find the right activities outside the classroom that elicit a sense of pride, community, positive influence and exposure to social capital.
Latino Faculty and Administrators. Latino staff on campus have a special opportunity to serve as role models for Latino college students. We are often viewed by the students and their families as having “made it,” and that can translate into inspiration.
In the end, we have an obligation to help students feel empowered, self-aware and proud to be who they are. If we can do that, then watching them thrive inside and outside the classroom and getting them across the graduation stage will make all of the challenges worth it.