Lisette Nieves talks multi-contextualism and college persistence

[For Candice and Nahjee] I wish you ladies could have joined me for Lisette’s talk, “Multi-contextualism and the Consumption of Higher Education,” because I know both of you would have really enjoyed it. Giving you a digest below. We can dig into all this more deeply when we see each other next, because I would love to hear your reactions.

Lisette made a very credible case for the dishearteningly low college graduation rates of the latino student population being a result of certain cultural pressures rather than a lack of academic preparedness. In other words, it’s not that latino students aren’t capable of hacking college-level courses; it’s the fact that within the latino community young people take on very adult roles within their families, and this sense of obligation—and very real responsibility—often gets in the way of attending to the competing demands of college life. If we understand young latinos’ desire for parental closeness and their role in contributing to the family income, then all of a sudden the phenomenon of high-achieving latino students dropping out of selective colleges in order to attend the community college close to home makes sense.

What enables Lisette to arrive at these insights is by considering the problem of college persistence through the lens of multi-contextualism. Multi-contextualism is the psychological concept that captures how individuals move between three different developmental contexts: the historical, the socioeconomic, and the cultural. Lisette argues that while educators and youth workers are cognizant of the first two contexts (and we’re especially trained to be attuned to socioeconomic factors), we often overlook the cultural context informing our young people’s decisions. This sensitivity has both a deepening and a widening effect on the scope of our work. Lisette, for example, often has conversations with her students’ parents so that they can more fully understand the pressures coming to bear on their child.

To do our work well, then, we need to build competency in this arena, and also to know what we don’t know so we can reach out for support from the right experts. Sensitivity to multi-contextualism allows us to view the fact that latino students take an average of seven years to receive their bachelor’s degree as the “incremental consumption” of higher education instead of a widespread case of arrested development. (As Lisette so incisively put it, when middle class white Americans push for “cutting the apron strings,” they fail to recognize that latino youth are often the ones wearing the apron.)

Lisette furthermore casts latinos’ incremental consumption of higher ed. in a positive light. Every step they take (starting off with an associate’s degree and taking time off before completing a bachelor’s) builds their confidence, and is also an opportunity for us to equip them with the skills for persistence and the ability to navigate between different contexts. We need to have frank conversations with our young people so that lead them to understand the trade-offs in the choices they’re making without shaming them. As Lisette points out, first-generation college students already shoulder the burden of being the family success story, that the last thing they need is to feel as if they aren’t living up to their potential. We should communicate to our youth that getting a credible credential is necessary, but make peace with the fact that the path to that credential will look different depending on the population and the individual. Lisette points out that she herself, as a high-achieving first-generation college student from a Puerto Rican family is just now working to get her Ph.D.

Another point I should mention is that Lisette reminds us that career instability will be a fact of life for most of our young people. We no longer tend to devote our lives to a single company. Job-hopping is becoming the norm, and drastic career changes are not unheard of. She likes to tell her students that choosing the “right major” ultimately matters less than developing the skills to navigate transitions is therefore critical to career success.

In closing, an interesting tidbit about Lisette: when I approached her after the Q&A for a quick chat, she revealed that she spent a brief amount of time in foster care and said she was happy to share some research with me on that topic.

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