From Campus to Community: Latinx Students’ Commitment to Giving Back

Administration December 2023 PREMIUM

As Latino students, driven by a desire to give back, seek opportunities for positive change in their communities, educational institutions should recognize and support this commitment by creating validating spaces, offering internship opportunities aligned with service, and providing financial support for conferences to foster connections and mentorship.

Traditionally, higher education has been a vital instrument for promoting upward mobility. Colleges and universities recognize and value this potential outcome of a college education. Higher education as a public good also has the potential to provide solutions to society’s most vexing problems. At the same time, many Latinx students pursue a college education with a drive and desire to give back to communities and families. Many pursue certain majors, including STEM, as well as engage in various service-oriented opportunities as undergraduates to create positive change and “give back.” After college, many Latinx students seek careers grounded in serving others, such as teachers, social workers, nurses, and doctors. 

Given the strong value many students place on “giving back,” institutions should recognize this as an integral element of Latinx student success. More specifically, institutions should foster greater student and institutional success by intentionally developing and supporting opportunities where this purpose is central to Latinx students’ college experiences. 

Cultivate Spaces that Validate Students’ Desire to Give Back 

For many Latinx students, familia and all that it encompasses serves as a motivating force throughout their educational journey. Many of these students yearn for spaces on campus where they feel at home and, in turn, inspire others in their communities. Their aspirations to become student leaders, mentors, and agents of positive change within their communities are often ignited by their interactions with Latinx leaders, participation in programs that validate their experiences, and the discovery of a supportive community. Their tireless efforts to dismantle oppressive systems on college campuses are invariably driven by a desire to create better opportunities for future generations of Latinx students.

Institutions have a unique responsibility to cultivate spaces that seamlessly integrate Latinx students’ lives on campus and provide them with opportunities to become change agents. These spaces exist in classrooms, especially when Latinx students see themselves reflected in the faculty through affinity groups, cultural centers, and Latinx access programs. These spaces often provide Latinx students with role models, connections to the community, affirming visual representations, and leadership opportunities.  

Institutions that deliberately create spaces to foster community and cultivate leadership skills can effectively become a home away from home for Latinx students, enabling them to thrive and impact their surroundings in profound ways.

Establish Internship Opportunities Grounded in Giving Back 

Many Latinx undergraduate students, particularly those who are first-generation and/or low-income, must work to cover living and educational expenses while they are studying. Some may be fortunate enough to work in jobs aligned with their career and personal goals, but many do not. Institutions should thus provide internship and work opportunities that foster students’ desire to serve communities. Some of these opportunities can be developed through partnerships with different organizations as well as through external sources of support. For example, in California, the Governor’s office created #CaliforniansForAll College Corps, a statewide program to support college students looking for paid service-learning opportunities. The program aims to engage students in meaningful service to build their leadership and civic skills, help low-income college students graduate with less debt, and address societal challenges affecting communities across California. 

This inaugural program selected 45 two-year and four-year institutions across the state where college students are offered paid internships working with community organizations focused on some of the most critical issues affecting local communities, such as education, food insecurity, and climate action. Some students are placed in K-12 settings and provide tutoring, mentoring, family engagement, or classroom support. Some work at community organizations offering nutritional support or distributing food, while others support efforts to enhance climate change awareness and sustainability. 

In addition to centering students’ commitment to support their local communities, these internship opportunities provide ample opportunities for them to develop their professional and leadership skills, thus boosting career preparation. Colleges should develop more of these types of internship opportunities for Latinx students. 

Support Graduate Students’ Ability to Give Back 

Latinx graduate students are not only breaking barriers and shattering glass ceilings in academic circles; they are also making a profound impact on their communities through their unwavering commitment to give back. Research conferences are great spaces where Latinx graduate students can connect with professionals they can relate to and find mentors in their respective fields. For example, the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institution Educators, otherwise known as AHSIE, has become a space where Latinx graduate students learn about professional development opportunities, find technical assistance, and disseminate best practices.

As a graduate student who participated in AHSIE and the American Educational Research Association conferences during my first year, I was able to see firsthand the importance of these spaces. While connecting with professionals I related with, I was validated in my research interests. Those experiences inspired me to write, fight, and further create opportunities for my Latinx community. 

Institutions can help Latinx graduate students make professional connections by providing conference funding. It is equally important that institutions offer financial support to these students’ advisors so that they can create these opportunities for them as well. 

The powerful force of Latinx students’ commitment to “giving back” is a driving factor in their educational and career journeys. As educational institutions seek to support Latinx students in their pursuit of success, it is essential to recognize, support, and cultivate this commitment through active collaboration.


About the authors

Gaby Perez is a current PhD student in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests examine the journeys of Latinx students from urban environments. 

Marcela G. Cuellar, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. Her research examines postsecondary equity with a focus on Latinx/a/o student experiences and outcomes at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and emerging HSIs.

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