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Latinas reach UTSA educational mountaintop

By Angela Covo | 12 de mayo de 2012

Latinas reach UTSA educational mountaintop

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2009, less than 2 percent of all PhD’s granted in the United States were earned by Latinas. That’s about twice the rate of success Hispanic women had thirty years ago in the 1980’s, when Dr. Norma Cantú, Graduate Advisor of Record for the PhD Program in English at the University of Texas-San Antonio, earned her doctorate.

San Antonio.- According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2009, less than 2 percent of all PhD’s granted in the United States were earned by Latinas. That’s about twice the rate of success Hispanic women had thirty years ago in the 1980’s, when Dr. Norma Cantú, Graduate Advisor of Record for the PhD Program in English at the University of Texas-San Antonio, earned her doctorate.

By Angela Covo

“Our young women don’t have role models – and Latinas are an important demographic in the student population. We need a professoriate that reflects that reality,” Cantú said.

It’s no wonder the prolific writer and speaker, and renowned expert in Chicano/Chicana literature, jumped at the chance to create a PhD program at UTSA in 2000. The two-time Fulbright Scholar was very happy tending her rose bushes and teaching at Laredo State University/Texas A&M International University, where she had been a professor for 20 years, when she got the call.

“The idea was to offer accessibility to students in the South Texas region to get their PhDs in English. The program is cross-cultural and offers a concentration in Latino literature, which can include Chicano/Chicana literature emphasis,” Cantú explained.

And while the numbers still look small, the award-winning doctoral program developed at UTSA has been very successful.

“We have had 20 graduate with the PhD – and four or five of the students with Ford Foundation Fellowships, a very, very selective and competitive program,” Cantú said.
This year, the program scored a veritable trifecta, graduating three Latinas from the doctoral program. All three women come from different backgrounds and span several generations.

Candace de Leon-Zepeda, 34, graduates with a PhD in English with a concentration of Latino literature and cultural studies. The single mom was told in high school she was “not college material” and pretty much gave up on the idea of going to college.

“My parents own a tire business in Corpus. I was a developmental writer and I couldn’t pass standardized tests -- I was directed to vocational studies in high school,” she explained.

But her parents’ struggles and a yen to please her mother eventually forced de Leon-Zepeda to take another look at college.

“My mom always had these dreams of what if, and I felt I owed it to my parents to try this college thing,” she added.

She worked full-time and earned an Associate’s degree in studio art at Delmar Community College to complement her mural painting business, where she found the faculty somewhat intimidating and distant. She decided to continue to study, and switched her major to education, with the goal of turning a negative to positive – she realized teachers had great influence in the classroom and wanted to create positive experiences for students.

Her dissertation maps inequalities of Mexican-Americans in the education system and concludes that new teaching methods that incorporate the students’ culture could help bridge the gap and improve results for Hispanic students.

Patricia Portales, 39, also almost didn’t go to college.

“I was a vocational student in high school. I worked half-day through the coop program at Southwest Research Institute. One day, someone asked me what college I was going to next year – and the light bulb finally went off,” she explained.

She faced a bunch of challenges – she had no idea how to apply to college, where to get scholarships or how to even start the process.

“But I learned by just doing it,” she said.

Portales attended St Mary’s University and by the end of the first semester she knew she wanted to teach English. In 2001, after earning her B.A. and M.A. in English, she started teaching at San Antonio College, where she earned tenure by 2007. She credits her own progress with great role models at St. Mary’s University.

Now “Dr.” Portales plans to continue teaching at SAC even though she could easily teach at the university level.

“The demographic at SAC has a high population of Latin American students – I want to stay with them. The degree is not just for me but for my students,” she said.

Margaret Cantú-Sanchez, 28, completes UTSA’s 2012 trifecta.

“College was always in the cards – my parents, especially my mother and all the women in the family, were strong education advocates,” Cantú-Sanchez explained.

Since high school, Cantú-Sanchez knew she was born to teach. She enrolled in the five-year B.A./M.A. program at St. Mary’s and soon realized she wanted to be a professor. She joined the ranks of grad students at UTSA to reach her goal.

“There are so few Latina professors in general, but at UTSA, we had Dr. Cantú and Dr. Sonia Saldivar-Hull to look up to,” she explained.

That made all the difference for her and for her colleagues.

“They (Cantú and Saldivar) are very invested in their students and their students’ work – and they were instrumental in getting us graduated. I wouldn’t have made it without them,” Cantú-Sanchez explained.

She also dovetailed her experience with her dissertation, which reveals through literature that for Latinos, their life history and culture is not validated at school. She endorses adopting both sets of knowledge to increase academic success for Hispanic students – a “mestizaje de epistemologies” –weaving together both academics and culture.

The challenges these three students faced were tough – but they found enough support at UTSA to achieve their dreams.

“Dr. Cantú and Dr. Saldivar inspired us and encouraged us to keep going. They were great role models – the people who we eventually want to be,” Cantú-Sanchez added.
For Professor Norma Cantú, those words will be particularly meaningful as she wraps up her career at UTSA this year.

“We owe our success to the English Department at UTSA – Dr. Cantú played a pivotal role in all of our lives. She created an inviting environment that allowed us to study ideas close to our hearts,” Cantú- Sanchez said.

While Cantú is retiring from UTSA this year, we can look forward to more books from the talented wordsmith, who is slated to be named Professor Emeritus at UTSA in the near future.

Photo: Dr. Norma Cantú with her students Patricia Portales, Candace de Leon-Zepeda and Margaret Cantú-Sanchez, a veritable trifecta. The three women earned doctorate degrees in the Dept of English at UTSA, making them part of a very elite group -- less than 2 percent of PhD’s granted in the US are earned by Hispanic women. (photo courtesy Kris Rodriguez)

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