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Academic Motivation in Hispanic High School Students


Ethnicity matters. That is what a Santa Clara University psychology professor and his students found in a study that examined how Hispanic high school students view their ethnicity and success. Despite how positively they felt about who they are and how much they believe they can achieve, their subconscious mind told a different story.
Professor Tim Urdan and his students tested a group of teenagers from an east San Jose high school on both a conscious and subconscious level. The teens were given a series of questions that asked about themselves, their culture, and how they felt about academic success. Then, the teens were asked to associate pictures and positive and negative words with either Hispanics or Whites. SCU students found teens who had a strong sense of cultural identity also valued academics to be important. However, no matter how positively the teens viewed their ethnicity and culture, they subconsciously associated academic success with Caucasians and not Hispanics, which may impede motivation and educational aspirations.
“It’s an unfortunate finding considering that many urban schools, including the one in which this study was conducted, the dropout rate for Latinos is substantially higher than the statewide rate,” says Christina Favela, an SCU senior who helped conduct the study. In California, Latinos have a high school dropout rate of 25.5 percent, double the dropout rate of Whites, according to the state’s Department of Education.
The results indicate a need to help Hispanic students to develop a stronger association between their ethnic group and success. Urdan suggests schools should provide opportunities to have academically successful college students with similar cultural backgrounds to return to their high schools to mentor teens.
“When you introduce a student to someone who has a similar background and is close in age, they’re less likely to discredit that person as being out of their league or having some kind of advantage that might have helped that person achieve academic success,” says Urdan. “For instance, if the role model were someone in their 40s or 50s, the high school students might say, ‘those were different times back then.’ Or if the role model attended a different high school, the students might believe that school had better resources.”
Favela and another SCU student Stacy Morris say they plan to conduct more studies this fall that will test whether high schools that specifically cater to Latino students, such as the Latino College Preparatory Academy in San Jose, show different results. Favela and Morris also plan to conduct the same study in Spanish rather than in English for a comparison.
Favela and Morris are presenting their findings at the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues conference in Ann Arbor, Mich. June 19-20.
Professor Urdan and his students are available for media interviews. Contact:
Connie Kim Coutain | | 408-554-5126 office | 408-829-4836 cell
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