By Luke Lara, Ed.D.
I came to my office on June 5, 2015 and found a note on my chair. It said, “Dr. J. Luke Wood is looking for you. Give him a call at…” I recognized the handwriting and went to find my colleague with the distinct print. Why would Dr. J. Luke Wood be looking for me and why did he contact my colleague? Confused, I asked my colleague, but he just shrugged his shoulders. Minutes later, I dialed the number on the post-it note. That was the beginning of a whirlwind three years of my doctoral program.
A month earlier, I had attended an Equity Summit at a local hotel in Carlsbad hosted by my college’s Student Success governance committee. The keynote speaker was Dr. J. Luke Wood of San Diego State University (SDSU). He also happened to be the Director of the SDSU Ed.D. program. He discussed his latest research on men of color in community college. I remember how this was the first time I had heard of such research and felt excited to learn more. After the presentation, a colleague introduced me to him. I expressed interest in Dr. Wood’s research. He asked me, “Have you considered getting a doctorate degree?” I replied, “You know, I applied back in 2009 and was accepted to the program, but because I had just been offered a full-time tenure track position and had a newborn son, in consultation with my partner we decided I could only do one or the other.” I continued, “At the time, getting paid was the logical choice.” To that, he retorted, “Would you apply again?” Was he calling my bluff? I felt the pressure to say yes. I jokingly replied, “Would I have to take the GRE again?” It had been 10 years since I had taken the GRE and the anxiety lingered. After what seemed several moments of thought, he surprisingly said, “No.” Our conversation ended with me saying with a smile, “Okay, then I’ll think about applying next year.”
I identify as Latino, specifically Ecuadorian, and as male. I am mixed racially, Black and white. I grew up in Minnesota, only knowing Ecuador through my childhood home on Main St. in the suburb of Columbia Heights. I spoke Spanish and learned English as an ESL student in the local public school. The local parochial school would not accept me if I did not speak English. My mother, white and college educated, and my father, middle school educated and Afro Ecuadorian, lived on welfare for most of my youth. What they lacked in material wealth, they made up for in cultural and moral richness. My parents were musicians and social justice change agents. They organized and educated the community around social justice issues. They valued the dignity and worth of every human being, and especially fought for the most marginalized. I embraced their values, and these have been challenged every day of my life. I experience life as a brown man in a society that sees me as inferior, despite my intelligence and credentials. This is my worldview.
The year 2019 marks my twentieth year working in higher education. In my first six years, I worked in private and public four-year colleges and universities, specifically with students of color and first-generation college students. In particular, I directed a federally funded program called TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science for three and a half years. We promoted STEM and higher education to high school students in San Diego and Imperial counties who were low income and would be first-generation college students. Given the borderland context, the majority of the students were Latinx. As a requirement of the federal funding, we had to track students from High school graduation through bachelor’s degree achievement. All of my students graduated from high school and the majority of them went straight to a community college. I had no clue as to what this meant at the time. I had the privilege of attending a private liberal arts college in the Midwest and graduated in four years. I attended the public K-12 system in Minnesota and only experienced a maximum of 500 students in my high school and only 1,800 students in college. When I first stepped foot on El Cajon High School’s campus nearly 18 years ago and learned there were more than 2,000 students, I could not believe it. Community colleges in San Diego county have varying sizes, but many are between 10,000 and 20,000 students. Community colleges were known as “2-year” colleges: a place where students could prepare to transfer to the 4-year college or university. Curiosity to learn more about why my students continued to be at the community college beyond two years led me to earn a master’s degree to become a counselor in California’s community colleges.
When I first entered the community college world in 2006 as an adjunct counselor, the big focus was on the basic skills initiative. I was very involved in many innovative projects to support basic skills students. I began to understand the trend I had been seeing in my TRIO data. Students, in particular, students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, were stymied in the community college through low English and/or math placement. They often started two or three levels below what was required for successful attainment of an Associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college. Their journey became too long and full of institutional and life obstacles.
I knew I could do more as a full-time counselor to establish the necessary relationships with students and colleagues to change the system. However, several counselors warned me that it would be ten years before I was offered a full-time tenure track position. I took that as a challenge. I hustled. At one point, I worked at five different colleges and universities teaching and counseling. I looked at every possible opportunity, including the newly created doctoral program at SDSU that emphasized community college leadership. My life was converging upon itself: a newborn son, a full-time faculty position, and admission to a doctoral program. I made the right choice at the time. I now have two wonderful children that are 10 and 8 years old. I am tenured and I have held many leadership roles in my department and institution. I am grateful for the growth in those six years before the portal of the doctoral program reopened to me.
For four of those first six years of full-time employment, I led the Puente Project, a transfer success program based in culturally relevant teaching and culturally sustaining pedagogy, emphasizing the Mexican American/Chicanx experience in California. I witnessed first-hand the impact of culturally responsive curriculum on the growth and development of Mexican American/Chicanx students. For many, this was the first time they had a teacher who acknowledged their identity as a strength for learning. It was the first for many things: first time reading Latinx, Mexican American, or Chicanx authors; first time being taught by a Latinx identified professor; and, first time being validated as college worthy students. My college success course was taught in conjunction with an English course as a learning community built on the foundation of a cultural community. My Puente partner and I intentionally engaged with our students in each other’s classrooms and outside the classroom, creating a community of support and “família-like” community.
Meanwhile, I also served as department chair for two and a half years. In this capacity, I hired over 20 adjunct faculty. I also had the privilege of chairing four full-time faculty search committees, resulting in seven hires in my department. Lastly, I have served as a member on several search committees within my department and outside my department, including committees for two vice president searches, one dean, a math faculty, a computer science faculty, a department secretary, and a student support specialist. I approached each of these searches with curiosity, always seeking to hire people that could truly support and understand the student diversity at the community college. I did not have a word for it at the time, but now we refer to this as seeking “equity-mindedness” in a candidate. That is, the ability to be culturally responsive, social justice, and equity focused to support our most marginalized students in achieving equitable outcomes.
In 2015, when I saw Dr. J. Luke Wood’s presentation, I had an epiphany. As he talked about better supporting our men of color, I asked myself, “Who are we hiring to support our men of color?” What happens in the classroom begins with who we hire. Who we hire is dependent on the institution’s values, vision, policies, leadership, and agents (e.g., the people involved in the hiring process). This train of thought fueled my quick affirmative response to Dr. Wood when he called me a month later. Coincidentally, the topic of diversifying the faculty had also intrigued the state chancellor’s office in the fall of 2015, and later the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges in subsequent years. My intuition was right on.
During the first day of orientation for the doctoral program, we met all the faculty. We spent about five minutes with each one for a “speed dating” activity, where we introduced ourselves and our topic of interest. Most of the cohort were interested in studying students; student athletes and transfer; foster youth in community college; formerly incarcerated students; or Latinx students in STEM. Two people were interested in studying leadership.
As I met faculty members to explain my proposed topic, there was mostly mild to low interest. My topic did not align with studying student success directly. Fortunately, I was not dissuaded, and I found a dissertation chair that believed in me. Dr. Felisha Villarreal Herrera, a newer faculty member, had just started her third year at SDSU, but had previously been a tenured faculty member elsewhere. While her focus was on Latinx students in STEM, she and I found common ground as I developed my guiding theoretical lens, critical race theory (CRT). I was fortunate to have her as my writing instructor in my second year, where she helped and encouraged me to apply CRT to my topic. I had heard from other classmates that other program faculty frowned upon the use of CRT, so I felt very fortunate to have a mentor that understood my inquiry.
To start, after the orientation, I embraced the daunting task of reviewing previous scholarship. I started off broadly, looking at hiring practices in education, hiring discrimination, racial discrimination, cultural competency, and implicit bias. I found and applied articles from various fields including education, business, sociology, social work, psychology, history, and law. I expanded my literature review with every new article I read, exploring every branch of the tree. The branch for higher education on hiring practices was thinner than the branch for K-12. In comparison, the research on community college hiring practices was a small twig.
I adopted CRT as a guiding theoretical lens by which to analyze what I had gathered so far. It provided a framework to understand discrimination in the hiring process. While discrimination is multidimensional, I focused on racial discrimination because it has been an enormous challenge over the last thirty years to racially diversify the community college faculty. When we consider state and federal non-discriminatory laws and affirmative action, it becomes even more daunting to improve hiring outcomes. However, the more I read, the more questions arose for me. Three years went by quickly. They were accompanied by my institutional praxis and professional development throughout that period that acted like fertilizer to my growth: the twig was going to get longer, stronger.
The most rewarding part of writing the dissertation was honoring my participants by writing and sharing their lived experiences. I engaged in a phenomenological inquiry and interviewed ten community college faculty of color who actively advocate for hiring faculty of color on faculty hiring committees. The whole process was emotional for me and the participants. They shared stories of what they see as barriers in the hiring process and how they strategically disrupt those barriers. I do this work for them and all the students of color who come through our community colleges and who we hope to hire one day as faculty.
As I sat on a wood stool to be hooded by Dr. Felisha Villarreal Herrera in May 2018, I felt the weight of what I had embarked on, with my parents in the audience—roots—and my partner and children cheering me on—future. When we first started, I was told, “You will become the expert, the one and only person who will know what you know. That is what it means to be a doctor.” One year later in April 2019, I published an article based on my dissertation in the prestigious Community College Journal for Research and Practice. In this past year, I have presented at state-wide sponsored events, presented at other community colleges, and trained faculty and HR professionals. Am I an accidental doctor? Given my origin story and professional experiences, this is not so accidental but rather exactly what I need to do, when I needed to do it. I am intentionally here to change paradigms, improve hiring outcomes, and create equitable student success outcomes for our students of color.