Research Identifies Strengths of First-Generation Latinx College Students for Studying Abroad

By Dane S. Claussen, Ph.D., MBA
Manager of University Relations
Athena Study Abroad

“Assets-Based Learning Abroad: First-Generation Latinx College Students Leveraging and Increasing Community Cultural Wealth in Costa Rica,” by David Wick, Tasha Y. Willis, Jacqueline Rivera, Evelyn Lueker, and Maria Hernandez, was published in the November 2019 issue of Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad.

This article takes on stereotypes that Latinx students who are first-generation college students are unprepared to study abroad, and implies steps that may be necessary to help such students study abroad who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t. They gathered longitudinal evidence from 25 students who experienced service activities and homestays in Costa Rica, 14 M.S.W. students in three six-week graduate internships and 11 B.A.S.W. students in a two-week undergraduate service learning course. Nearly all students were Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicana, or part Mexican; female; and reported having intermediate or advanced Spanish language skills. The authors are from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey; California State University, Los Angeles; and University of California, San Diego.

Because only one previous study could be found on first-generation, Latinx college students studying abroad in Latin America (despite Latinx students now composing about 40% of all US college students), the authors’ research literature review also drew on studies that focused on first-generation college students, first-generation students studying abroad, identity exploration, strengths-based critical pedagogy, and Latinx college students generally.

The researchers reported they did not intend to develop or test theory, but they gathered evidence structured by Yosso’s Community Cultural Wealth (CCW) framework—which focuses on strengths, rather than weaknesses, that students bring with them to educational environments. As the write, “The model highlights six forms of cultural wealth of capital: a) aspirational, b) linguistic, c) familial, d) social, e) navigational, and f) resistant. From a CCW perspective, we expect that the value and benefits of study abroad may instead vary depending upon student identities and host cultures.”

Evidence was “collected one month after each program and six to nine months later as we intended to maximize contact with students for the research process itself and also as part of our high-intervention approach to stimulating their reflection,” the authors write. “Researchers adapted focus group protocols and in-country journal prompts to meet the differing needs and realities of the undergraduate and graduate students. MSU students also participated in individual interviews at all three points in time.” The qualitative evidence was analyzed in multiple rounds of coding and they reported that “remarkably similar themes across all participants, despite the inherent cognitive differences between undergraduate and graduate levels of study,” they write.

The article reports “three key findings”: “First, students were able to leverage their linguistic and familial capital in meaningful ways to connect with their hosts in this context. Additionally, the data present insights into how students drew upon not only their linguistic and familial capital but also their inherent aspirational and resistant capital while abroad. Finally, ways that students interacted with their forms of CCW appeared to deepen their bicultural identities, strengthen their resistance to injustice, and instill a strong desire to inspire other Latinx students to pursue international education experiences.” The authors write that their results are in “sharp contrast to unmet expectations and identity-challenging experiences of students of color in heritage destination” studies by other researchers.

This study is a good first step in research on Latinx, first-generation college students studying abroad and should generate many additional qualitative and/or quantitative studies. This study’s sample was small and homogenous (including being all social work students and probably all living in southern California). Future studies need to include more diverse students samples (particularly male students, students majoring in disciplines other than social work, and/or students living in other areas of the United States.) While increasing the number of first-generation students and the number of Latinx students studying abroad is critically important, and many will prefer to go to Spanish-speaking countries for various academic, professional and/or personal reasons, steps also must be taken to increase the likelihood that first-generation Latinx students also will study abroad in non-Spanish speaking countries and also be successful in those programs.

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