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Dedicated to Teachers

“I Bring Change” - The Tools That First-Gen Latinx Students Use to Build Their College Futures

April Blog Banner 1200 by 628XPhoto by Joshua Chua 

By Irene Castillón

I am a year and a half into the Heinemann Fellowship program. I am a proud Latina Heinemann Fellow. I am a proud first-generation college graduate (threefold). However, every time I sit down to write a blog, I can’t help but think about whether I am adequate and/or eloquent enough to share my thoughts and my work. In that moment, the self-doubt leads to comparison; I compare myself to authors and don’t regard myself as the author that I am.This is not the first time I have had this feeling. It is one I know all too well. I experienced these feelings throughout my college journey (undergraduate and graduate school!). I remember sitting in my classes; I remember how my hands got sweaty during discussions, how I had to repeat the thoughts in my head various times before actually saying something. Then when I finally did share a comment, I questioned myself—was my point communicated, did I make sense? Or were my ideas overshadowed by the imagery of my red-flushed face that accompanied my words? Words that for some from the dominant culture are often, just like me, foreign.

I was not able to contextualize my learning experiences yet and instead internalized failure from the deficit-thinking mindset I’d been taught. All I could focus on was what I didn’t have, rather than what I did and do have, because that is all I knew.


As I now reflect on the journeys of the twenty-four students who agreed to be part of my research—journeys I have been so privileged to be a part of—I remind the students of their greatness, of all that they are and all that they contribute to the college campuses.

For my action research as a Heinemann Fellow, I have explored the following question: In what ways can a high school community support their first-generation, Latinx college students as they navigate their first and second years at a four-year college setting?

Recently I asked students to write journal entries on the question What do YOU bring to your college campus? I asked them to reflect on what they contribute to their college campus and on the tools they already have to help them navigate their college journeys.

It was beautiful to see students recognize and own what they do have rather than what they don’t have: ownership of stories and assets grounded in hopes and dreams for multigenerational impact weaved with unwavering commitment to give back to their communities through their educational goals of being the first in their family to attend and graduate from college.

Student SuccessLatinx/Chicanx Student Success Center at San José State University
(November 5, 2018, Centro_sjsu Instagram )

Acknowledging and Fostering Cultural Wealth

Tool #1: Chisel to Shape Community

Tara J. Yosso conceptualizes community cultural wealth as “an array of knowledges, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and used by Communities of Color to survive and resist racism and other forms of oppression” (2005, 154). She identifies cultural capital, aspirational capital, familial capital, linguistic capital, resistant capital, navigational capital, and social capital as funds of knowledge that communities of color have to navigate predominantly white spaces.

In the past two years, I have had the chance to visit the Latinx/Chicanx Student Success Center at San José State University and have seen the amazing work they are doing to support students, including first-generation Latinx students. On the wall, they have visuals representing this model, a model that reminds me of all that students have and all that we can do as educators to build on these assets throughout their K–12 education so that students know they can and should regard them as strengths as they navigate their college journeys.

I was also reminded of this framework and model as I read my students’ journal entries. Students reflected on the way they see themselves as change agents, as they navigate, pave their way, and make an impact, not just on their college campuses but on their families and communities. Crispin, a first-year student at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) responded to the question by stating, “I believe I bring Change. Many may say that it is not possible to disrupt the school to prison pipeline, but I am doing it. That is what I bring to CSUMB, hope and change for those who think no one ever make a difference in our community, here at CSUMB and in SJ.”

Crispin alludes to the aspirational capital that Yosso outlines; his dreams are not only for him but also for the community. He aspires to challenge the status quo and have an impact on a social justice issue and change the deficit-thinking mindset that change cannot be achieved. Instead, he seeks to shift that

perception to one that proves that change can happen in his community, both at CSUMB and his broader community of San Jose.

Edgar, a second year at California State University Sacramento, emphasizes his cultural capital as well: “I feel that what I bring is my pride in being Latino and saying we are here, in a predominantly White space. . . . [T]his is important to me because as I grew up, a lot of people from the Latino community back home didn’t go to college but now that I am here, I can start making a difference and help others to believe that I made it, that they can too.” This demonstrates the pride he takes in his identity and in his community.

Tool #2: Ruler of Resistance

I am inspired by my students’ resistance; they remind me that this is an asset I too have to acknowledge that I possess, as I write the words in this piece and keep writing, the way I remind my students to hold on to their resistant capital to keep writing their college stories.

Maria, a first year at California State University East Bay, highlights the resistant and navigational capital she holds. She reflects, “I bring a Si Se Puede attitude and mindset. As a first-generation college Latina student, I realized how there are many programs and support groups on campus. Not everyone decides to attend and take advantage of the support that we have, but I do.” For Maria, her mindset of “yes I can” allows her to persist in college and to navigate academic and socio-emotional support services (tools!) that are supporting her college success.

Jennifer, a first year at UC Berkeley, echoes this Si Se Puede, mindset. “I feel like what I bring to my campus is my hard work and perseverance. I work hard every day to overcome challenges in order to graduate from college.” Jennifer acknowledges the hard work and perseverance as positive assets she brings to her college campus. She identifies her hard work as a tool she possesses to react to setbacks and overcome the challenges she may face in college. Her hard work allows her to resist these setbacks and keep going along her college journey.


As educators, I want to push us to think about ways in which we can validate student assets that are shaped by their experiences. I want to challenge us to think about how our privilege prevents us from really seeing our students’ experiences and in turn prevents us from validating those experiences just because they might not be the same as ours. Our most powerful tools come from acknowledging students and we can’t really see them unless we center their experiences, their stories, their tools through asset-based lenses to foster student success in the K–12 setting and beyond.


Work Cited

Yosso, Tara J. 2005. “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education 8 (1): 69–91.


Read More from the Heinemann Fellows


Irene Castillón (San Jose, CA) is the assistant principal and history teacher at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School in San Jose, CA, where she seeks to build structures and programs that affirm students by fostering teaching and learning that is culturally competent and empowering. Irene was also the recipient of the Phyllis Henry Lindstrom Educational Leadership Award and in 2016 and was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the #LatinosTeach campaign. With her leadership and teaching largely influenced by her own experiences, Irene entered education to advocate for equity, tolerance and justice.

Topics: Heinemann Fellows, Irene Castillon

Date Published: 04/16/20

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