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Interview with Erin Doran, Ed.D. from Iowa State University on Hispanic Serving Institutions, Community College, and the Experiences of Latinx Students

About Erin Doran, Ed.D.: Erin Doran is Associate Professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University, where her work focuses on Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), community colleges, and the educational experiences of Latinx students. Dr. Doran is also Affiliated Faculty in the U.S. Latino/a Studies Program at Iowa State.

Dr. Doran’s publications have appeared in equity-focused journals like the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Journal of Latinos and Education, Community College Journal of Research and Practice, and more. In 2020, she was named a Faculty Fellow for the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education. Among her many other accolades, Dr. Doran was named an Emerging Scholar by the American Education Research Association (AERA) and received the Dissertation of the Year Award from the Council for the Study of Community Colleges (CSCC).

Dr. Doran serves on the editorial boards for the Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education and has worked as a consultant for the educational nonprofit Catch the Next, Inc. Prior to joining the faculty at Iowa State, Dr. Doran worked as a Student Development Specialist at The University of Texas at San Antonio and as Adjunct Instructor of History at Northeast Lakeview College in Live Oak, Texas. Dr. Doran received her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from The University of Texas at San Antonio, where she also earned an M.A. and B.A. in History.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in working to promote educational equity, particularly with respect to Latinx students in community colleges and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs)?

[Dr. Erin Doran] I am a product of Hispanic Serving Institutions. I am a three-time graduate from The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in history from there. I had planned on getting a Ph.D. in history, but the job prospects in that field were pretty bad. Instead, I got a job as a graduate student support specialist in graduate education, which is an interesting mix between student affairs and academic affairs. I also began teaching at a community college that was an HSI.

I had never attended a community college myself. I grew up in a family where there was a stigma about community colleges and whom they served. That was not an option for me in my own college journey, but when I started teaching there I absolutely fell in love with community colleges and their students in particular.

I knew then that I was going to be a scholar-practitioner for the rest of my career, so I made the decision to do the Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership at UTSA. This was partly for practical reasons. The department was housed in the same building where I worked and, because I worked for the College of Education, I had access to tuition reimbursement programs. While I was there, I was encouraged to think about community colleges.

Gloria Crisp and Amaury Nora were at UTSA at the same time, who are both renowned community college scholars. Interestingly, I never heard the term Hispanic Serving Institution until I was a doctoral student. I took a class with Anne-Marie Nuñez, who became my advisor and later my friend. She was developing her own research on HSIs at the time. It was very helpful to engage in those conversations and see the meaning-making process that she was going through as she was working on her first edited book and starting to produce her formative scholarship on HSIs.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your own research and practice? In particular, are there important ways your background in Chicano/a/x Studies and affiliation with the U.S. Latina/o Studies program at Iowa State informs your understanding of educational equity?

[Dr. Erin Doran] The thing that has shaped my ideas about educational equity the most was my introduction to Gloria Ladson-Billings’ text on the educational debt that is owed to students of color. You can define equity in many different ways, but the main questions it raises are, “What are the reparations we can make or ways we can work to change an educational system that was not built for minoritized students?” Something I have come to understand is it is not any one thing. Regardless of where we are in the educational system, we work toward uplifting the students who are in front of us to the best of our ability. We pull the levers we have control over to further that project.

I am about to teach a class focused on equity to Ed.D. students at Iowa State. I want them to come out of that thinking of the equity concerns relevant to their projects no matter what they are. Even if equity is not the central focus of their projects, I am asking them to consider how they can keep equity in mind. We need to keep our eyes on the prize and remember why we are here and what we are working for. I think that most people in the educational discipline and most educators are aware of the importance of equity. At the same time, I have students who have never thought about these things before.

We try to unpack that and think about the privileges we hold that allow us to be unaware of these discussions. This is not to make anyone feel bad. I could talk all day about my own privilege. The question is how, once you are aware of your privilege, you use that privilege and leverage it to lift all boats.

My entry into Chicano studies came relatively late. For me, it was more personal than academic. When I present my work on Chicano/a/x studies, I discuss how I identify as a multiethnic person. I am white, and I am also Latina. I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. I came to Chicano studies not knowing there was language for things that my family and I went through that are actually quite typical: language loss, for instance. I grew up in an English-dominant household. My grandparents made a very conscious choice to raise my mother and her family in an English dominant household. This raises questions about the meaning of assimilation and having a minoritized identity in the U.S. context. For me, Chicano studies has been a way to explore my own experience and, as a researcher, to work with frameworks that are more representative of the students I am interested in studying.

[] As mentioned, your work has focused on the overlapping institutional contexts like community colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions. Would you expand on how these institutions are critical sites in the struggle for educational equity, perhaps reflecting on your recent publication “Toward a New Understanding of Hispanic-Serving Community Colleges”?

[Dr. Erin Doran] Two-year public HSIs constitute the largest body of HSIs in the United States at about 40 percent. The majority of students who identify as Latinx and go on to postsecondary education start at a community college. For me, no conversation about equity and boosting outcomes for Latinx students – whether that means attaining a postsecondary credential like a Career and Technical Education (CTE) credential, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a doctorate – is complete unless we are considering the importance of the community college as the entry way for these students. Similarly, in our conversations about equity in STEM, we are not really talking about broadening participation in STEM if we are not talking about community colleges.

In that particular article, I was considering the fact that two-year and four-year institutions are distinct from each other. Community colleges are balancing multiple missions and charges. They have obligations to their local communities that four-year institutions may not have. The equity projects may look different there than they do at four-year institutions.

When we look at the literature we see that more scholars are willing to do research on four-year contexts. Like people who study faculty and postsecondary education, they are studying themselves and the context they inhabit. They do not have to go anywhere else to study that. This is not to say this work is unimportant. At this point the conversation is incredibly rich and could use perspectives from all different kinds of institutions. More work can and should be done on private HSIs and religiously affiliated HSIs. In this piece, I just wanted to say, “Don’t forget community colleges.”

[] Another place you have explored the uniqueness of community colleges is your recent publication, “What Does Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Mean in the Community College Context?” Would you introduce us to the idea of “culturally relevant pedagogy” and what this study identified as the unique needs of community college students?

[Dr. Erin Doran] In this piece I unpack terms that tend to be used somewhat interchangeably, like multicultural education, ethnic studies, and culturally relevant pedagogy, which is a term Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced in the 1990s. There is Geneva Gay’s term culturally responsive pedagogy, and now people are discussing culturally sustaining pedagogy. These terms have in common the idea that an educator should make efforts to provide a curriculum and teaching experience grounded in pedagogies that reflect the cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds of their students. This is done with an awareness that there are systemic inequities already built into the education system. It aims to uplift students in ways that validate their own identities and taps into the richness of their cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

I learned from this study that culturally relevant pedagogy in the community college context is not what instructors think it is. I did this survey right before the COVID-19 pandemic set in. I sent out a questionnaire asking folks how they defined and enacted culturally relevant pedagogy. I found that most instructors thought being culturally relevant meant, for example, that if they were teaching a literature course they would ensure there were one or two authors who identified as Black and Brown. They would read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, then read Langston Hughes. This approach is doing the bare minimum and checking a box–it is not making an intentional disruption to the curriculum or the canon.

The other thing I tried to emphasize is, in their accounts of culturally relevant pedagogy, many of these educators, like Ladson-Billings and Django Paris, start with the self and with interrogating your own biases, privileges, and approach to your students. This is an area where my research showed a real disconnect, and I would like to see community college instructors who have done the work of becoming what Liza Talusan calls “identity conscious.” Regardless of where you are in the United States, if you are a community college educator you are probably working with a disproportionate number of racially minoritized students, students who come from low-income backgrounds, first-gen students, and students with both visible and invisible disabilities. We need to think critically about how to bring that into the classroom in a way that does not harm students.

[] Another important focus of your scholarship is on developmental education, which you have written about with respect to HSIs in publications including “Developmental Instructors in the Contact Zone.” How do you view the importance of developmental instruction to the pursuit of educational equity, and how is developmental education unique for HSIs?

[Dr. Erin Doran] When I was teaching at Northeast Lakeview College in Live Oak, Texas — a city in the San Antonio area — I taught history classes. I remember the second week of the semester, a student came up to me and said, “I need help. I can’t read the textbook. I don’t know how I managed to graduate from high school, because I feel like I can’t understand this textbook.” In theory, students were supposed to be “college ready” to be in my history course. I had to tap into my undergraduate education where I was a supplemental instruction (SI) leader to help demystify the process of academic reading and taking notes. Thank goodness I had that background and I could try to help her work through that.

The fact that students arrive into college courses without receiving needed developmental education courses — services that will help them reach college readiness levels as quickly as possible — represents an amazing challenge to community colleges and broad access institutions. I think there are a lot of very fair criticisms about developmental education as a system in higher education, especially concerning how many students get stuck in a swirling effect where they cannot pass these courses and end up dropping out. There are fair criticisms. But I think it also represents one of the greatest areas of opportunity for community colleges if they get it right.

It is difficult for me to define how developmental education might be different in HSIs, simply because every community college offers developmental education of some sort. I do not think any elements of developmental education are completely unique to HSIs, but what you might see is more of an institutional commitment to culturally relevant practices aimed at understanding the bridge between English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, developmental education, and English Composition One. This means recognizing that students may have significant ESL challenges and need access to opportunities before they are ready to go into Composition One.

The work I have done on developmental writing has focused on HSIs, and you do see more educators who are willing to take up the charge to incorporate culturally relevant content. A program I worked with called Catch the Next [discussed in more detail below] is dedicated to supporting community college students who test into developmental education. All of their partnering colleges have been HSIs. It has been interesting to see how they have been able to bring language and cultural ways of knowing into the classroom.

When they do small group exercises, they may call the groups “familias.” It is a signal to students that this is a space that is created for you, with you intentionally in mind. They also work to build learning communities that might pair, for example, a learning frameworks course with a Mexican American studies course. The idea is that Mexican American studies might help students understand the power of college education and why it is important that they get to a college readiness level.

[] You are currently on the editorial boards for the Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education. Would you discuss how your commitments to equity and educational activism influence your approach to academic editing?

[Dr. Erin Doran] As a researcher trying to do work on racial equity and racial justice, I have received condescending and racist review responses to my work. I refuse to inflict that kind of harm and injustice on anyone else. I try very hard to be a good reviewer. Whether it is conference proposal reviews or my work with journals, I understand that the fact that I would not approach a topic in a certain way does not mean doing so is a bad thing.

I have had journal articles sent to me that were racist and made racist assumptions, whether it was about community colleges or Latinx students. When that happens, I will try to find ways to call those out whenever possible. We do not need any more peer reviewed research that is racist or makes bad assumptions about community colleges. On the other hand, if I feel really strongly about a manuscript and think it makes an important contribution, I make sure that I clearly convey that to the lead editor. I’ll say, “Please publish this so that I can cite it.” But, overall, my approach to being on editorial boards and reviewing is simply to not be a jerk.

[] You worked for several years as a consultant for Catch the Next, Inc. — a college readiness organization aimed at closing the achievement gap for Latino/a/x students. Would you provide us with some background on this organization and your work with them? Do you see academic collaborations with nonprofit organizations as an important front of equity work?

[Dr. Erin Doran] Catch the Next is a nonprofit organization based in Texas that seeks to provide high quality developmental education focused on community colleges, though they have worked with four-year universities as well. Depending on the campus, these colleges may serve different student populations, but the majority of students who benefit from the program have been Latinx identifying.

Their program is called the Ascender program. It draws on educational best practices to offer a hybrid between a first year experience course and a learning community. Students in developmental education take corequisite courses like Composition One. The faculty receive rigorous training on developmental education and culturally relevant pedagogy. The faculty and students both get access to mentoring relationships. All of this is geared toward boosting the college knowledge of students in the program.

In my work with Catch the Next, I have conducted research and assisted with their evaluation processes. I collect and interpret data on student outcomes. I also help organize their professional development activities. I help run a webinar nine months out of the year, where I present and invite scholars to present. The work has been incredibly rewarding because it has allowed me to develop relationships with other community college faculty throughout community colleges in Texas, which also provides new entry points to campuses where I can conduct research.

My colleague Lorenzo Baber has written about these kinds of academic collaborations with nonprofit organizations. It can be really exciting for community colleges to have access to another resource to tap into for professional development needs. Something I learned through my dissertation work is that professional development is often seen as a waste of time and faculty feel as if they do not get what they need out of it. One way nonprofit organizations can help meet those needs is to bring their work to campuses, which can reduce costs for colleges and help nonprofit organizations tailor their efforts to meet that college’s specific needs.

[] Based on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity in their own work?

[Dr. Erin Doran] Regardless of where you work within the structure of education, you have a stake in equity. I had a prospective student come to me and tell me she was interested in getting a Ph.D. at Iowa State but that, since she was interested in social justice, she did not think she should have to take courses like finance. I said, “Actually, if you are interested in social justice, finance is one of the most important classes you should be taking because you should know how money works and how you can get resources to people who need them the most.”

Regardless of where you are, you can use your position and power within the structure to advance equity. It may not be for students. It may be opportunities for underrepresented groups in a certain field or organization. In her work, Gina Garcia talks about how even at HSIs faculty and administration representation tends to be predominately white. In what ways are you encouraging people of color and women in your organization to pursue higher education and to move up the org chart? It may take time for the changes to be possible, but they are important. I think about my supervisor at UTSA when I was a graduate student advisor. He was a white man, but he encouraged me and asked me what I was going to do to become a faculty member or an administrator.

The second point I would make returns to our discussion of starting with the self and having honest conversations with yourself about the privileges you hold, the assumptions you may make, and how to make sense of them. If your assumptions are based on racist ideologies, this does not mean you are racist. It means that you need to unpack that and think about how you can move forward from that and be better. How can you make the jump from not being racist to being actively anti-racist? That takes time, work, and effort. It also takes being willing to sit in your own discomfort for a little while.

Thank you, Dr. Doran, for sharing your insight on minority serving institutions, developmental education, pursuing educational equity for Latinx students, and more!