Reframing Representation

Saúl I. Maldonado is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Education. His research examines social equity via curriculum, instruction, evaluation, assessment and teacher preparation.

April 27, 2014

By Saúl I. Maldonado, Doctoral Student, Department of Education  

Saúl Isaac was an English teacher in Northwest Pasadena (CA) and a Los Angeles college access program director prior to coming to UCSC.
Saúl Isaac presenting his work at the American Educational Research Association national conference.


negotiating an identity as a doctoral student in any discipline is a professional and sociopolitical experience that is profoundly personal (this narrative contests status quo grammar constructs and employs capitalization as needed). further, dimensions of racial-ethnic and language minority background uniquely contribute to how graduate school realities emerge. in this narrative, it is my intent to share a few thoughts relating to minority graduate student experiences at UCSC. to be clear, my individual perspectives are suggestive, not prescriptive.

i’m a chicano and my preferred language (how i organize my thinking) is spanish. this is my fourth year in the education department, a spectacular space to prepare for a research career. one way to substantiate such claim is the collective emphases on collaboration, e.g., students are invited to coauthor manuscripts. while a cooperative community contributes conditions suitable for synergistic scholarship, our department’s consciousness is shaped by our conceptual coherence on equity as a social responsibility.

Discourse of distraction

the original title of this blog series was “trailblazers: graduate students from underrepresented communities.” descriptors such as “underrepresented” are often used to describe both individuals and group categories. yet, how under in “underrepresented” is qualified and/or quantified is continuously shifting and how underrepresented is distinctive from disadvantaged, vulnerable and disenfranchised is not common knowledge. similarly, the descriptor “trailblazers” communicates a differential experience associated with pioneering solitude and disproportionate accountability. currently, as i share my research with multiple audiences and facilitate conversations of identity and power, i prefer to use the qualifier sociopolitical minorities.

another term that i have found to be ambiguous is diversity, a buzz word currently trending across campus and evident in the titles of initiatives, committees and syllabi. at times, diversity is packaged like a convenience store item displayed as race-ethnicity and superficial cultural practices such as art, cuisine and clothing. not all graduate students think actively about minority-majority demarcations, for me, such ruminations have been obligatory and continuous. my current thinking is that discourse of diversity and underrepresentation often distracts from the deeper, more nuanced, understanding of how both individuals and institutions enact power dynamics, trust and cooperation.

Quality of vibe: Ambiente de cariño

i’ve been trained to use quantitative data to present contextual landscapes and analyze processes of access and achievement. but descriptive statistics of minority graduate students’ enrollment, retention and graduation rates do little to explain representation. in my view, representation is less about quantifiable indicators and more about quality of vibe, or ambiente de cariño – an environment of equity.

to analyze whether graduate students, departments and divisions experience equitable policies and practices, inclusion and fairness (Field, Kuczera & Pont, 2007; OECD, 2012) are appropriate indicators. combined, measures of inclusion and fairness capture a sense of belonging, which is different from participation. individuals and institutions are always heterogeneous and it is important to consider the complex relationships of how people, programs, policies and practices understand and value representation through reflective insights on “deep” cultural practices such as notions of leadership, concepts of time and communication patterns.

to describe an ambiente de cariño, institutional ecological conditions are appropriate—graduate students alone may not organize or enact a quality of vibe campaign. during my first quarter at UCSC, i was invited to engage in a research cluster at the chicana/latina research center. with a collegial cloud of encouragement and support, i presented my first paper as a doctoral student. my sense of belonging in that first research cluster gradually provided me with the psycho-social stability to present my work in less supportive spaces. by sharing my research, i’ve gained access to a network of interdisciplinary scholars and university administrators.

while institutional sociopolitical infrastructure may set the context for an ambiente de cariño, quality of vibe requires interpersonal cultivation. quality of vibe has to be grown locally and organically. in santa cruz, many understand the importance of responsible renewal in agricultural practices. located at the center of campus, the farm works to create sustainability systems for humyns and environments. for interpersonal sustainability, the farm is an appropriate metaphor. by framing UCSC as an intellectual and socio-emotional garden, possibilities for including all ingredients in a fair trade enterprise may flourish. further, a plurality of ingredients provides more opportunities for innovative and complementary groupings—fresh ideas, delectable dialogue and flavorful research. minority graduate students benefit from the training offered at UCSC, but the relationship is reciprocal and there’s much more to understand regarding a sustainable reframing of representation. i look forward to learning from/with you.

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