Posted on March 16, 2021 by Christopher Reichert


For Professor Claudia García-Louis, identity is key.

“That’s something that’s really important to me,” she said. “I’m a daughter of farm workers, I was a farm worker myself, and that’s really an identity that I hold very true.” Born in Yahualica, in Jalisco, Mexico, García-Louis and her family moved to Hood River, OR when she was four years old. With her identities as laborer and community organizer, immigration activist and scholar, mother and mentor, García-Louis is garnering national attention for her research, as well as her devotion to the communities she serves and the students she guides.

For one, García-Louis has been selected as the inaugural recipient of the new Distinguished Support for Graduate Students Award from NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. According to the association, this award is intended for full-time faculty, who have “demonstrated excellence in advising and exceptional support in fostering the personal, academic, and professional development of graduate students.” This comes naturally to García-Louis and stems from her past experiences as a community organizer and the current combined role of mother and scholar.

“Because of my identities changing so much over time,” she said, “especially my responsibilities being a parent and being in academia, I’ve shifted a lot of that energy into mentoring the next generation of students, really reflecting on my experience as a student and what I wish I would have gotten, and that’s what I provide for my students.”

This award is especially meaningful to her, as mentoring students is one of her more difficult roles, but also one of the most rewarding.

“Mentoring students is almost like a jigsaw puzzle,” she explained. “You’re one piece and they’re the other piece, and sometimes they don’t align and so the experience could be negative for both. But when you find that perfect fit….to me, that’s huge. That, to me, is the reason I mentor: to make sure that I helped these students continue their pathway towards their dreams.”

"But when you find that perfect fit….to me, that’s huge. That, to me, is the reason I mentor: to make sure that I helped these students continue their pathway towards their dreams.”

In addition to receiving awards from NASPA, she has also devoted much of her time to serving the association, recently being selected to serve as co-coordinator for its Emerging Faculty Leader Academy. This year-long program takes promising young scholars and mentors them, preparing them for their goals of teaching and research. Being selected to coordinate the Academy is even more meaningful for García-Louis, since she herself was selected as a member of the Academy in 2017.

“I think it’s a huge honor, to be quite honest, to be a junior faculty member who’s non-tenured and being asked to mentor the next generation of junior scholars,” she said. Returning to the Academy, this time to mentor others is yet another example of how García-Louis’ own experiences shape her work with her students, and her commitment to pay it forward.

But this commitment goes deeper than teaching and mentoring, even permeating her research. Currently taking a year as a postdoctoral fellow with the highly selective Ford Foundation, García-Louis is delving further into identity, specifically in the Latinx community. Her work, which seeks to examine how the early educational experiences of Latinx students in various communities shaped their later experiences in higher education, is changing how we see not only identity, but research itself. Growing increasingly dissatisfied with current research, García-Louis began to suspect the methodology itself was flawed.

“When you apply methods that were developed with a different population in mind onto marginalized scholars or marginalized individuals, then there’s an ill fit. And what you find is that the findings are often deficit because you’re utilizing the wrong framework, the wrong method,” she explained. “But what does it look like to then utilize what the community knows and work backward….it unearths nuanced findings that we are overlooking because we’re enforcing these long-held approaches that don’t fit the population.”

Her Ford fellowship is allowing her to examine just this. One of the ways she has done this is by taking the concept of testimonio – giving testament or bearing witness to one’s experiences – and reframing it as testimoniada , the gathering of individuals in a virtual space. This simple perspective shift has enabled García-Louis to recruit participants from both coasts to come together and share their stories.

“It empowers the participants to be the ones in control and the person who’s doing the research is essentially just there facilitating the conversation, but not guiding it whatsoever. It gives power back to the participants and lets them identify what is important to be discussed,” she said.

In addition to recentering the narrative back onto the participants, García-Louis’ methods have enabled her to continue her research when geography and COVID-19 restrictions would have otherwise curtailed it. But this isn’t to say that her work has been completely unaffected by the pandemic.

“Trying to be mindful of [participants’] needs, while also making sure that they understand that their stories are worthy of being heard and worthy of compensation, to be quite honest has been the most difficult,” she said.

Ultimately, being mindful of the needs of her community is what drives García-Louis. It was for this reason that she was further honored by being elected to the board of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education as the first faculty representative.

“To me, it’s a huge honor,” García-Louis said. “AAHHE has a very special place in my heart because it is a professional organization that is specifically dedicated to Latinx folks.”

But beyond that, AAHHE itself is undergoing a shift in identity, changing to mirror the population it represents in terms of culture and heritage, gender and sexuality, colorism, and other social identities which intersect in unique ways within the Latinx community.

“The reason I’m so excited about it is because AAHHE is very young and AAHHE is a literal representation of what is happening in the Latinx community,” she said.

But despite the national attention and accolades, García-Louis is still proud to be part of the UTSA community, believing that her achievements reflect onto the school as well.

“My biggest source of pride is that it just completely pushes back against this notion that top-tier scholars, or cutting-edge scholars, or people who are doing important work are only at R1 institutions…predominately white institutions,” she said.

“I don’t foresee myself going anywhere; I don’t aspire to be at an R1,” she said. “The student population here is what keeps me here, it’s working with students who have often been told that they’re not good enough, and that’s who I was.”

“The student population here is what keeps me here, it’s working with students who have often been told that they’re not good enough, and that’s who I was.”

Her empathy for her students also encourages her to be a role model for them.

“If students see themselves reflected in their faculty, reflected in national organizations…then they know it’s possible to have. They know it’s a possibility for them to accomplish that.”

While García-Louis serves as an inspiration to her students, she acknowledges that in turn, some faculty have inspired her.

For example, she says the work of Professor Lilliana Saldaña inspires her to do more for her community.

“I have a number of colleagues who are doing amazing work and whose work just isn’t highlighted….there are other people that just need to be highlighted, especially Lilliana. She’s one of the most giving, most hardworking, and under-recognized people at UTSA.”

In addition to inspiration, some colleagues offered her additional support as she applied for the Ford Fellowship and began her research.

“Langston Clark was the one that encouraged me to apply,” she said. “In fact, he kept nudging me and nudging me. I wasn’t going to apply, but it was him saying, ‘you need to apply, you need to apply!’”

She also credits the former dean of the College of Education and Human Development, Margo DelliCarpini, with supporting her vision for her latest research.

“That’s something that I don’t know if I would have received in other places,” she said.

 Nevertheless, García-Louis believes that the university has room to grow.

“UTSA is very young, UTSA is a Hispanic serving institution, and I think UTSA has a lot to learn in terms of how to serve Latinx students,” she said.

This room for improvement is one of the reasons her postdoctoral research as a Ford Foundation fellow is dedicated to the K-12 experiences of Latinx students and the way it can affect their university careers.

“When we get college students and we’re trying to serve their needs, we can’t serve their needs without understanding what they went through at the k-12 level,” she explained.    

Whether through her research, her mentoring, or her community outreach, García-Louis is committed to helping her students and the communities they inhabit. With such recognition for her work with the broader Latinx community so early in her career, one can only imagine the effects her work will have and the fruits it will bear in the years to come.

-- Chris Reichert

— Christopher Reichert