Activating Capital: Latinx Women Transforming a Predominantly White Women's College
Women’s colleges carry an important legacy of access and equity in higher education, even as they faced challenges of dropping enrollments, financial hardships, and the creeping threat of conversion to coeducation at different points in their historical arc. The research on women’s colleges has touted the benefits of attending these institutions on students’ satisfaction with academic experiences, visibility of women role models and leaders, and encouragement to pursue advanced degrees in fields in which women are underrepresented. Most studies are silent on the intersectionality of race and gender in student experiences and outcomes.
Using Delgado Bernal’s (1998) Chicana feminist epistemological perspective as a way to focus Stanton-Salazar’s (2010; 2011) theory of social capital for the study of institutional agents and their role in the empowerment of low-status students, this study examined the factors and contexts that influenced the experiences of Latinx women at a women’s college, paying special attention to the role of staff and faculty in the transmission of social capital. Employing a narrative qualitative method, the main sources of data were biographical background surveys, one-on-one interviews with 15 Latinx women and five staff and faculty members, and documents analyzed for content related to campus diversity initiatives.
The findings of this study revealed that institutional investment in academic and mentorship support for Latinx and first-generation students; the role of family; supportive relationships with Latinx peers; and a culturally relevant curriculum, all positively influenced Latinx women’s experiences. On the other hand, Latinx women’s feelings of alienation at a predominantly white institution, and the campus involvement and student leadership paradox, were factors that challenged students. Other important findings revealed the characteristics of empowering relationships between institutional agents and Latinx women that facilitated the transmission of social capital. These included: the benefits that emerged from long-term relationships; the breaking down of institutional hierarchies to minimize the distance between faculty, staff, and students; and the ways in which interpersonal trust was predicated on a shared identity and political consciousness.
The implications of the study suggest opportunities for women’s colleges’ administrators, faculty, and staff to address the challenges of embodying the values of a truly intersectional feminist institution invested in the success of Latinx students, and underrepresented students more broadly.