Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Professor, Activist and 'Homegirl'

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Professor, Activist and 'Homegirl'

Article excerpt

The most surprising finding by Dr. Frances Contreras in interviewing teachers, parents and students in eight school districts across Washington state is what little progress has been made in Hispanic educational attainment.

"I've witnessed the same story of previous generations in the current generation," notes Contreras of her research on achievement gaps for a study commissioned by the state Legislature.

The problem: many minority students today are dissuaded from higher education, just as Contreras was advised by a guidance counselor not to attend a four-year university fresh out of high school.

The Southern California native says, although she took as many Advanced Placement classes as possible in high school, earned a grade point average over a 4.0 and was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles, a counselor suggested she begin her undergraduate studies at a community college. In being from a traditional Mexican American family and not having attended one of the better high schools in the state, the counselor said Contreras might have a hard time adapting to the culture and academic rigors of the state's flagship institutions.

"And I said, 'thanks for your advice, but I'm not taking it. Someday, I'm going to come back to you and let you know how I am doing, or you're going to read about me,'" Contreras recalls.

Contreras developed a disposition to challenge authority early on, as her parents made political activism in the Southern California labor movement a family affair and frequently engaged in political discussions at the dinner table, she says. In fact, it was her passion for social justice that eventually drove her to an academic career. After working at Latino Issues Forum while at UC Berkeley, she was inspired by activist and academic mentors, in- cluding John Gamboa, founder of Latino Issues Fo- rum and the Greerdining Insti- tute, and Dr. Patricia Gándara, co-director of The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, who encouraged her to earn a Ph.D. and pursue a career in academia.

The campaign fa- tigue from working to stop Proposition 227 (a 1998 measure to end bilingual edu- cation in California) and Proposition 209 (a 1996 measure banning the use of affirmative action in university admissions and public contracts) prompted her to study the implications of these policies on underrepresented communities. …

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