Magdalena Barrera has a favorite scheme. Each page is organized into a grid of boxes, boxes, and tables, though the days are undated and the templates are interchangeable—providing flexibility and space for, say, the famous higher education official, academic, and champion of student success to juggle it all.
“I like to visualize how we use our time and how different processes evolve because it’s a key part of understanding how you know what to communicate to whom and when,” said Barrera, of San Jose State University. Vice Dean for Faculty Success Since 2020 and former chair of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at SJSU.
“I enjoy thinking about these things intellectually in terms of higher education. Often, once we get into the rhythm of things, we think we’ve always done things this way, but why? Is this the most efficient way? And can we make it easier for people? Others, especially first-generation students and faculty, to get into this process and understand how to navigate it?”
Barrera isn’t the only official or faculty member asking these questions — nor is she the first. As an academic and Latino higher education professional who was a first-generation student, she is familiar with the barriers her students face as they pursue their degrees. That’s why I partnered with Genevieve Negron GonzalezAssociate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of San Francisco, Inc “The Latinx Guide to Graduate School” (Duke University Press 2023).
The book offers practical advice ranging from determining if and when graduate school is a good fit to navigating personal and professional relationships in academia, pursuing research and publishing paths, and exploring postgraduate opportunities. Barrera and Negrón-Gonzales also address deeper questions as they relate to cultural identity, such as how to contextualize a graduate degree for one’s family or how to find financial aid resources for undocumented students.
Latin scholars, Barrera says, “often feel that we are less than or that we are outsiders of the academy.” She hopes the book will help readers understand “how to orient yourself to graduate school, so that you don’t internalize any negativity, and to understand the cultural strengths you bring to your studies—the same strengths that can help you survive, thrive, and do work that is truly useful, not just intellectually for society.” scientists but also to the societies we represent.”
Alonzo Campos, a 12-year MA in American-Mexican Studies, revised an initial draft of the guide while completing his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University. Barrera became his mentor during the master’s work at SJSU and has remained a consistent influence as he navigates his career. He saw the guide as one manifestation of her commitment to demystifying academia, especially for first-generation students.
“Often, as students, we see professors or mentors and think, ‘Wow. They have these degrees and titles. He said. “But with this book, Dr. Barrera and Negrón-Gonzalez have provided a space to share and remind us: Behind every title and degree, there is a story.”
He added that those stories are meaningful.
Whether she works with students, faculty, or fellow administrators, Barrera understands that everyone, regardless of identity, may need different types of support. She remembers an influential paper written by a scientist in higher education Monisha Bajaj Compares the Guides of ‘Street Sign and Lantern’distinguishing leaders who provide step-by-step guidance on the “street sign” from those who “shine lights to help you see more of the entire structure, so you can determine the best route for you”.
Lantern mentors say, “This is my understanding of the process.” Let’s talk about different options. “To get to your destination, you might make very different choices than I did; you could take a different route. And that’s fine.”
Integrating identity into education
As a faculty member for more than 14 years before transitioning into an educational administration role, Barrera sees the value in both types of mentors—and hopes to demystify academia for Spartans.
The Latinx Graduate School Guide demonstrates Barrera’s commitment to improving equality in higher education. Prior to joining the dean’s office, she served as the inaugural director of collaborative ethnic studies in the College of Social Sciences; resident faculty to diversify the college in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and a faculty fellow at the Chicanx/Latinx Student Success Center. She also plays a leadership role in the newly formed HSI of SJSU, which was established in 2021 with a A gift of one million dollars from Adobe As part of a high school program.
Because more than a quarter of SJSU’s full-time students identify as Hispanic, the university qualifies as a federally designated Hispanic Service Institution (HSI). But beyond demographics, what does this mean for students, faculty, and staff alike?
“How do we really support students so they thrive?” Barrera asks. “Regardless of your role on campus, how do you integrate HSI identity into your daily work?”
She hopes to make SJSU’s HSI a destination for professional development that demonstrates how to create and implement culturally sustainable, asset-based, academically emphasizing curricula and curricula, particularly around digital literacy and community building. The college participating in the institute develops curricula that emphasize inclusivity and belonging.
A recent example is the Teaching Community for Faculty Counter-Digital Storytelling, a project that teaches faculty how to create assignments that raise marginalized voices to disrupt mainstream narratives about historically disadvantaged communities, using Adobe products to capture these perspectives. In time, Barrera hopes that faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates alike will be able to benefit from HSI’s resources and training.
“My experiences at San Jose State—the interactions I have with students in the classroom and during office hours, campus events over the years, as well as my interactions with my peers—have really changed how I see my mission and purpose in higher education,” she recalls.
Having devoted much of her early career to cultural studies based on the humanities, she turned to writing about higher education itself.
“Now, I enjoy writing about the experiences of historically disadvantaged faculty and students, and reflecting on how I navigate higher education. It’s a reflection of how SJSU has really shaped me over the years.”
Learn more about Magdalena Barrera.