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The Q&A: Victor Saenz

In this week's Q&A, we interview Victor Saenz, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Victor Saenz, associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Victor Saenz, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin. He started an initiative called Project MALES, which focuses on mentoring Latino students. Saenz’s research focuses on Latino male students and he is currently looking at their college experiences.

Saenz was the co-editor of "Ensuring the Success of Latino Males in Higher Education: A National Imperative," which focuses on research about what helps and prevents Latino male students from going to college.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: You just recently published a book. What is it about?

Saenz: The book we just published is focused on the challenges in educating or better educating male students of color, primarily Latino males. It is a collection of chapters contributed by scholars from around the country who have been researching a variety of different questions about how we can better support Latino male students throughout the educational pipeline, with a special emphasis on secondary and postsecondary success.

Trib+Edu: What are some of interesting things that you found while putting this book together?

Saenz: One of the rationales for the book is that there’s not a high concentration of research work that looks at explicatively the plight facing Latino males in education. There’s been a lot more written about the African-American male experience, but not so much with the Latino male.

We thought there was a real compelling interest to identify emerging scholars and their emerging scholarship that focuses on this population of students given that demographic urgency and demographic comparative.

The key insights from the book are really focused on what are the overarching research questions that we need to be asking to improve educational outcomes for Latino students. In particular, how can we design interventions and initiatives that can better support their college career pathways?

The collection of chapters really delves into a variety of different questions about what their high school experiences are like, where do we see them lagging behind their peers academically and in terms of other indicators like school discipline and special education. So many of these boys are trapped in these alternative pathways that ultimately define their ability to kind of return back to a college or career pathway.

I think several of the chapters focused on that piece in the high school frame. Other chapters focused on their college experiences and the kind of challenges Latino males encounter as they try to navigate their college experience.

Ultimately, I think the book is making a claim for what this gender gap could portend for the future of our country given that demographic imperative. If we have half of this population of young men consistently lagging behind other peer groups, that’s going to be a real problem for us in the long-term, economically and socially.

Trib+Edu: What are some of the challenges Latino male students face in schools?

Saenz: For one, we know that Latino males relative to peers are more likely to get attracted to … special education pathways and the school discipline pipeline. That’s where some of the similarities arise with respect with African-American males.

We also know that Latino males are struggling with help-seeking behavior that ultimately means the difference between their success and failure in an educational setting. Help-seeking behaviors can be as simple as going to visit a teacher or professor after a class, going to their office hours. Do you seek out the tutoring and advising services that you need to be successful?

Any opportunity where a young man has to reach out for help can be a challenge. There are a lot reasons that can help explain some of that.

Part of that is tied with the identity of these young men being so independent and trying to figure out what it means to be a young man. … For Latino young males, often the notion of masculinity is wrapped in these sort of tropes of manhood ... That manifests in them not seeking out the kind of help and guidance they need.

The other overarching thing we see about why male Latinos aren't seeking out a college pathway and foregoing that is, well, they’re joining the career ranks. But they’re joining the career ranks at a much lower level of economic opportunities that are available to them.

Part of the reason of that desire or urgency to join the workforce often stems from the expectations that they’re managing within their family to go work and be a provider. … They see joining the workforce as a much more urgent pressure that ties to their obligations and responsibilities they’re feeling to their families.

Trib+Edu: Earlier, you brought up this idea about the gender gap. Can you explain what the gender gap is when it comes to Latino males?

Saenz: The gender gap can be defined by a variety of educational outcome metrics. We look at the proportion of people who graduate high school or enroll in college or earn a college degree. Those are key transition points for students.

For Latino males, we see across all those different metrics they’re lagging behind their female peers and other male peers in rates of matriculation in the education pipeline. That, in essence, is the gender gap.

Part of the reason this gap in educational attainment is opening up is because males are not keeping pace with females or other groups in their trajectory to college and beyond. … More of them are going into the workforce immediately or get attracted to these other pathways like the school-to-prison pipeline narrative.

Ultimately, it's not unique to the Latino community. We see this gender gap among other groups, as well. As a result of that, there is broader set of challenges here.

Trib+Edu: How can we solve all of this?

Saenz: We have to engage in thoughtful conversation with a variety of different stakeholders. We do that in our work with Project MALES and our Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color. That consortium is made up of statewide partners, K-12 school districts, community colleges, four-year universities that have come together in the past three years to forge a conversation around best practices to better serve the needs of Latino and African-American males.

The other thing that we can do, that is going on nationally as a result of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative from President Obama, is to convene stakeholders on a much broader scale. … President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative put a focus on mobilizing the set of expertise that already exists in our community on how to better serve the needs of men of color from early childhood all the way to their career. I think that’s the kind of strategy that is necessary on the broader scale level.

These issues are endemic and systemic for males of color, particularly Latino males. We have to have a systemic response as well. … Ultimately, we want to find ways to improve their lives in holistic ways and improve the kind of life opportunities available to them.

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