Lorena González has always been drawn to helping students—specifically those who attend community college and reflect her own lived experiences.
Maybe it’s because she was “counseled” to attend community college after high school—but brushed off that advice and attended UC Berkeley instead.
Maybe it’s because she’s committed to racial justice, social justice and educational equity.
“Community colleges service the largest population of students with whom I wanted to work: low income, first generation and traditionally underrepresented in U.S. higher education,” she explains. “That’s not to say these student populations are not at other schools, but I feel that the community college is the ‘fork in the road’ for a lot of marginalized and minoritized students: They’re asking themselves if they’re going to keep with school or go straight to work. I feel that the most impact can be made there.
“Community colleges really emphasize the ‘community’ part in our system’s name. We get the high school graduates and the stay-at-home moms who are wanting to learn English, the recently paroled where education is part of their probation, the students who are transitioning from cash aid to paid employment.”
So for the past 23 years, Lorena has committed herself to not only providing counseling support to the students at College of San Mateo and at Contra Costa College, but also as a professor in the La Raza Studies department.
Lorena was also doing some contracting work with Puente Project housed at UC Berkeley to supplement her income as she is a proud, single mamá bear of three.
And then COVID-19 hit and that contract work vanished. So in order to supplement that much-needed family income—and future-improve her pay scale at Contra Costa College—Lorena needed to earn academic credits as part of professional development.
“So when I saw your student affairs and higher education certificate’s course descriptions, they aligned very much to what I'm currently doing. They fit right alongside my career path—natural alignment.”
Courses Meet Her and Her Students’ Needs
Contra Costa College is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), with a student population of 47-percent LatinX, 19-percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 15-percent African American, 9-percent Caucasion and 10-percent mixed/other. As such, gaining deep learning about student development and the role that racial- and social-justice issues play within educational equity in U.S. higher education was top-of-mind for Lorena.
“All of the topics in the certificate were really pertinent to my departments and to my role as a community college educator,” Lorena clarifies. “Understanding the role that race- and social-justice issues have played within the history of American higher education—and subsequently continue to manifest in the present day—are absolutely pertinent to my job, especially working with an urban, racially diverse, low-income, mostly immigrant, multilingual, multicultural community college like Contra Costa.
“The concepts I learned in class helped me in my role at the community college and the committees I participate in. They gave me a deeper understanding of the root causes of the inequities that happen and how we can best support our students and the community that we serve.”
All of the topics in the certificate were really pertinent to my departments and to my role as a community college educator
When asked if any of the four courses that she took stood out to her the most, Lorena immediately responds with History of American Higher Education.
“For any educator—and especially for any administrator going into any institution of higher education in the United States—it’s important to have an understanding about the role that race, exclusion and privilege played within the origins of U.S. higher education. We have to understand that education is a microcosm of what happens in society, and racial- and social-justice issues are no exception.
“It's a U.S. institution and a system, just like housing or the economy,” she continues. “There are origins in U.S. educational institutions that didn't include the racially and gender diversity of students who are now actual students at these institutions. That class connects the dots to many of the educational inequities that are being experienced now.
“So when you understand it, you realize, ‘Well, no, the schools aren't necessarily broken. That's just how they were intended to work.’ But in understanding the origin, you can look at issues that happen regarding inequities. We realize that it's the structure and the way these institutions have been set up. The institutions, as well as many of the faculty and administrators, are not adequately prepared for who is actually in the classroom.”
So not only was Lorena unearthing this important knowledge to better understand and serve her students, but in a weird twist of fate, was able to have more empathy for her students. How? The transition to online learning due to COVID-19.
“While I was also working during COVID,” Lorena imparts, “taking classes online allowed me to be more empathetic to what our students were going through. I was also learning online, and seeing how my fellow students and my instructors adapted to the online format was something that was of value for me in my professional role.”
This certificate has provided me with the deeper knowledge and understanding required to genuinely address racial- and social-justice inequities within U.S. educational institutions from a root-causes perspective.
1-Year Commitment, Lifetime of Achievements
Looking back on her time with us—while only a short 12 months—Lorena is proud of her accomplishment, commitment to her students and her three children. Looking back, Lorena is all smiles as she recalls this experience.
“Within the certificate, there is so much expertise within the classes, and that expertise goes multiple ways—from the instructors to the students, students to the instructors and also the students to each other because many of us are professional working adults. That just adds to everybody's experience and understanding.
“The interactions with my classmates were structured by the instructors. But students also reached out to each other for support—that was really great. All of my classes—regardless of teaching styles—the instructors provided a space, even online, where thoughts could be shared, questions could be asked. It was really an environment where everybody was learning simultaneously, and that was beautiful.”
As far as each class, Lorena offers:
“As co-chair of our counseling department, the Academic and Student Affairs Organizations class helped me tremendously in that role in terms of how student services are organized.
“In Student Development in College: Theory to Practice, this made me think about potential trainings that we could offer all of our counselors in our counseling department, in addition to all college faculty and administrators.
“The Social Justice Issues in Higher Education class—I work at a low-income, urban community college. We live and breathe racial- and social-justice issues in higher education every day. It was great to see how those issues play out across the country and alternative solutions available so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
“My own lived experiences as a student was also reflected in a lot of the coursework, articles and books that we read.”
And now Lorena is well-poised to continue her personal and professional goals of ensuring that every student—no matter race, background, income level—has access to quality education to succeed.
It’s something she takes to heart as she reflects on her own accomplishment of earning the certificate and investing in herself and her children.
“Personally, I would say it's more determined self-efficacy on my part that I was able to start and finish this program in one year. As a mother of three while working full time and during a global pandemic—it's not just about being a single mom, a woman, a woman of color, a first-generation college graduate, a first-generation college faculty member, daughter of Mexican immigrants. It's so much bigger than me. It's reflective of the strength and resiliency within the students and the community I serve—not just about my own capabilities, but what many of our students are enduring and are capable of.
“This Student Affairs certificate places me in a prime position to be able to move into administration if I ever choose to. But most importantly, this certificate has provided me with the deeper knowledge and understanding required to genuinely address racial- and social-justice inequities within U.S. educational institutions from a root-causes perspective. And in an era of superficial, feel-good educational Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, this knowledge and understanding is professional power. That's something that's definitely helping me grow professionally and impacting the roles I have as a community college educator.”