The Importance of Place in Defining a Hispanic-Serving Mission

Leslie D. Gonzales
Assistant Professor of Higher Education  
Michigan State University

In this post, I invite members and leaders of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) to consider the importance of place as they define the mission and work of their institutions.

What do I mean by place? Place is about geography, but it is also much more. It’s about the history of local people, local language and habits, and local traditions. Place is also about the labor market and local politics in specific geopolitical area. As such, place is about power, inclusion, and exclusion as they have unfolded in formal and informal ways.

By focusing on the importance of place when defining what it means to be a Hispanic-Serving Institution, members and leaders are required to do the hard work of learning about, accounting for, and honoring local histories and knowledges, assets and gaps and then using these insights to inform curricular innovations, service and community-based research projects, and student services.

By focusing on place, HSIs might discover new insights about the community in which they sit. Leaders and members will be forced to remain attuned to the great diversity that exists within the pan-ethnic category “Hispanic,” and how that diversity is often tied to place as a function of geopolitics, im/migration, and labor market patterns. To this point, an HSI in Indiana sits in a context and holds a history that is quite different from that of an HSI in Florida, New Jersey, or New Mexico. Each of these places holds a unique history and relationship to the larger national and global contexts, and each place has a particular relationship to the specific Hispanic communities that live there. Through the lens of place, it becomes clear that fulfilling a Hispanic-Serving mission involves much more than meeting a threshold for a vague demographic construct.

The concept of place can be especially helpful for institutions like California State University, Sacramento, which is designated as both an HSI and an Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI). In cases like CSU-Sacramento, learning about place would compel HSI leaders and members to understand the history of these two populations, how each has been positioned within the community/state/nation over time, the connections (or lack of) that the groups have shared over time, and how each adds to the immediate community, to one another, and to the learning opportunities within the institution, overall.

In other work, I have described how HSI leaders and members might develop a culture of inquiry to ensure that their HSI mission is grounded in the places in which they sit—the histories and realities of the local community, which is critical since most HSIs draw their students from the immediate geographic area. Below, I offer a few questions and prompts that can assist HSI leaders and members in defining their HSI mission by leveraging the power of place:

  • How do members of your HSI define Hispanic-Serving? Is Hispanic-Serving about enrolling students and moving them towards graduation, or are there efforts to understand the community, its history, its heroes, its accomplishments, and to thread such understandings into the curriculum and programming within your institution? Is the place threaded through the story of your HSI? If not, then…  
  • What do leaders, faculty, and staff within the institution know about the place in which your HSI sits? What do you know about the history of the Hispanic population that tends to enroll in your HSI? How has the Hispanic community been included or excluded in critical educational, health/medical, political, and other institutions in the surrounding area? What is the labor history among this Hispanic community? To learn about place in such a substantive way requires resources, so…
  • Is there an infrastructure, including human, fiscal, and spatial resources, committed to collecting, unearthing, and sharing the above kinds of information? If faculty members are involved in such community-engaged research, is the institution prepared to honor and value this kind of faculty work? How might you enable faculty and staff members to work productively with key community partners? Finally, in learning about place, it is important to share insights broadly and to ensure that the learning is always ongoing. Therefore, it is key to consider the following…
  • How might you invest in and provide ongoing education and professional development for faculty and student service professionals based on what is learnt in, from, and with the community? In what ways are you prepared to support curricular innovations, including culturally and place relevant courses and extra-curricular experiences?

By learning about and accounting for the place in which an HSI sits, HSIs have the opportunity to create missions in service of the nuanced histories, assets, and experiences of that particular community.

Dr. Leslie Gonzales is an assistant professor of higher education at Michigan State University. Gonzales's research addresses legitimacy within the academic profession, relations of power that govern the recognition of knowledge and knowers, and agency among academics. Gonzales is a Latina first-generation college student-turned-academic, and earned all three degrees from Hispanic-Serving Institutions.