On the heels of the newest U.S. News & World Report ranking UNLV as the most diverse university for undergraduates, the university is exploring what serving our particular student body means.
In recent years, UNLV has gained the official designation as a Minority-Serving Institution as well as those for Asian American and Native American, Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) and for Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI).
I am a member of UNLV's MSI Student Council, which partners with the Academic Success Center to better educate historically underrepresented students on how to navigate their college careers. We invited Marcela G. Cuellar to be an expert speaker at this year's MSI Student Success Summit. Cuellar, an education professor at the University of California, Davis, received her doctorate in higher education and organizational change at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Her research examines access and equity in higher education, HSIs and emerging HSIs, and Latinx student success.
She will present at the summit Sept. 24 from noon to 1 p.m virtually to the undergraduate student body and hold a keynote address with a Q&A session at 6 p.m. with UNLV graduate students.
What inspired your research on access and equity in higher education, with a focus on Latinx experiences at HSIs?
My parents had instilled early on that an education would be the way to really advance and move – not just socioeconomically – but to have an overall greater impact. My undergraduate experience at Stanford University shaped the positive — and the not-so-positive — experiences that helped me understand that a college education is more than a degree or about earning more money.
There is also what I would call a transformative aspect of education, which allows me to make sense of the world. This aspect has helped me make sense of my parents’ trajectory from Mexico to the United States and provided clarity on how opportunities get stratified in terms of education.
My undergraduate experience was transformative in that it instilled in me a desire to help more students that “look like me” have a similar experience that equips them with tools that in turn help them make the world more equitable. Following my experience at Stanford, I worked with students in Upward Bound and other educational opportunity programs. The focus of my work in Upward Bound was on how to get more students to college, which, again, isn't just about making more money. Yes, that is part of it, but the focus was on helping students understand how going to college contributes to your community – a bigger view of where you may fit in this world beyond yourself. These sorts of questions and topics became so intertwined early on for me that when I went to pursue my doctorate at UCLA, I knew I wanted to explore things related to access and equity in education.
I think we have largely framed higher education as a private good — as a way to advance economically. My experiences with students in the classroom indicate a yearning for more than economic advancement. It sounds cliché, but students are looking for meaning and purpose. Looking back on my own college experience, I now realize I was looking for those same things.
What can you share about MSIs and HSIs that turns conventional knowledge about these institutions on its head?
One thing I find fascinating about MSIs and HSIs is that they educate a majority of students from minority backgrounds. MSIs and HSIs hold this unique space. When we think about higher education, we tend to view college as being made up of certain pillars. We think of Harvard or Stanford, and we tend to think of these as being the “elite” institutions (i.e., having been around for a long time).
However, we need to revisit this model and emphasize the education of the majority of students from minority backgrounds. This model propels us to set up HSIs differently by having greater clarity on who is being educated and how the higher education landscape is envisioned moving into the future. In addition, HSIs are indicative of how we should think of higher education today versus how it has been viewed historically. I think in about 100 years, HSIs are going to represent the standard model in higher education, contrasting with the institutions that we, as a society, have typically glorified.
From your experience with Upward Bound, what success strategies could you recommend at UNLV, including the MSI Student Council, as a complement to this program in helping students succeed in college?
The value of Upward Bound and similar programs is their focus on fostering close connections and mentorship. By fostering connections with students, we can help them realize that their own hard work and determination is what leads to their success and not just sheer luck.
One thing I will say about the MSI Student Council [at UNLV] is that it brings students to the table and allows an opportunity for fresh perspectives. By allowing students to have input and by authentically listening to students, we can understand how their perspectives might allow us to restructure unnecessary obstacles. For instance, something that recently came to my attention was the notion of office hours. We often talk about the importance of office hours; and this is something critical for students entering college that allows them to form relationships with faculty.
Some students, particularly first-generation or lower-income students, may not be familiar with the culture of office hours. I have heard students say, “Oh, I thought that was time that faculty had dedicated to do their work.” Now, some of my colleagues have suggested calling them “student hours” to make it very clear that these are the times that we have allotted in our schedules to support students. I have a colleague who integrates office hours as part of the instructional time, so students don't even have to restructure their time to be able to connect with faculty. There are those faculty who, rather than having students come to their office, will go sit in the (the student union) and tell students, “That's where I'm having my office hours,” because that's where the students are and where they feel comfortable.
By doing things like this, we're disrupting hierarchies. Minor tweaks like this can help eliminate obstacles that may otherwise continue to alienate students.
What are you looking forward to most with respect to the upcoming MSI Student Success Summit?
I'm looking forward to engaging with students and learning more about the innovative things happening at UNLV. I'm excited to be part your community for that day, to feel the energy from this inaugural summit, and to learn more about you all. I hope students realize how their presence at the university doesn’t just impact themselves and their families, but it has an impact on future generations — I think students should find inspiration in that.
What do you do for fun when you are not busy improving higher education?
I like to travel and explore new environments. Unfortunately, with the current pandemic, that has been a bit limited. I also like Yelping for good food. Over the last two years, I have really delved more into health and wellness. I like turbo kickboxing and doing things that involve a lot of hitting and punching. This is probably because it's very therapeutic as well. I also enjoy spending time visiting family. But, with the pandemic, that has been a little bit harder to do. I also love spending time out at the beach, having grown up by the ocean in Oxnard. The ocean breeze is very soothing and relaxing to me. In general, I would say I enjoy all the beautiful gems that California has to offer. I’m a California girl through and through.