A Conversation with Dr. Roberta Espinoza, Professor of Sociology

Roberta Espinoza

A member of the Pitzer community since 2012, Dr. Roberta Espinoza is an associate professor in the Sociology field group. In a candid interview, Dr. Espinoza discusses community engagement, Pivotal Moments and the barriers first-generation college students face in the college application process.

What brought you to Pitzer?

Well, I did my undergraduate work at Pomona College, so I knew a lot about the private liberal arts college experience from my days as an undergraduate. I always intended to return to a small liberal arts college. I received so much mentorship, support and guidance from Pomona faculty that I knew I wanted to work within a small liberal arts environment and support students in the same way I was supported. My first academic position wasn’t at a liberal arts college, but then this job opened up and the stars aligned!

What are your impressions of Pitzer and its campus community?

When I applied for a faculty position, I had to write a statement of social responsibility. As I was writing it, I reflected on everything that I do to engage my students and get them to conduct research and be advocates for social justice issues. I realized that Pitzer was a good fit for me. Everyone within the Pitzer community is always thinking about social responsibility. It’s not just about conducting research, but using that research to create social change and spotlight issues of inequality within the educational system. I love the discourse that occurs both inside and outside of the classroom. The conversations are about social justice and the bigger picture, about combating inequality and trying to create social change. I view my role as a professor to facilitate those conversations.

What are your research interests at Pitzer?

My area is the sociology of education, particularly higher education access. I look at what goes on in the K-12 system to find out how educator-student relationships and other school processes either facilitate access to higher education or create barriers. I’m always looking at low-income and minority students and trying to understand their trajectories. I examine the types of post-secondary institutions they attend, and the pathways they took to get there.

How has your research played a role in your social responsibility?

My research ties in well with community engagement because it gets students thinking about social responsibility in regards to educational inequality. We study things in the classroom that are very theoretical, but I want my research to be applicable to practice. I ask myself how educators can use what I’m studying in their classrooms and in their interactions with students. Much of what we learn in the classroom gets transmitted to what we do outside of the classroom as well. For example, my classes are hosting community-based organizations on Pitzer’s campus and introducing them to college. It’s a conversation that starts in the classroom but ends in the community. We then discuss our responsibility for facilitating those opportunities with the knowledge that we have.

Based on your research, what are some things that educators can do to create access as opposed to barriers?

The first step is to build nurturing relationships with students. We often think of educators as having formal roles, including helping students learn the curriculum, but we don’t often think about their informal roles, like their ability to develop and nurture trusting relationships with their students. Educators should talk to their students about college, incorporate college into the curriculum, and help them believe that college is a possibility for them. That should all be a part of the messaging they get at school. Outside of the classroom, educators can create spaces to talk about college. Even those informal conversations that happen in the hallways or in passing can plant a seed and start an ongoing conversation about college. Some students don’t have the benefit of a college-going culture at home, so having those conversations with educators is really important.

Do you remember the connections you made in high school, and what ultimately led you to Pomona?

My pivotal moment came in 8th grade. I had asked to be put into the gifted and talented program throughout elementary school, but was repeatedly told that I was not a “gifted” student. My junior high school always took the 8th grade honors students on field trips to visit colleges, and on one particular trip there were two spots open. My English teacher asked if I wanted to go and I said yes, never guessing how significant this field trip was going to be in putting me on the path to college!

What college did you visit?

We visited the University of Southern California, where we met with admissions personnel, listened to a student panel and had lunch in the student union. It was the very first time I had been on a college campus, and everyone was talking to me about the possibility of going to college. We also popped into some local museums, and we even saw Fred Savage, who was a huge star in my day! That was the only college trip that I took, and it made an enormous impression on me. It made me feel like I could be comfortable on a college campus, and that going to college was something I could accomplish. After the trip, my English teacher continued to have conversations with me about college. I’ve had other educators support me along the way. But that moment was a real turning point for me.

Can you talk about your recent book, Pivotal Moments?

The book was an outgrowth of my dissertation. I had interviewed 75 doctoral women of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who were in highly selective PhD programs. Initially I thought I would look at their social support networks in graduate school, but when I was going through the transcripts, I realized that a pattern emerged amongst the women who were from working-class backgrounds, as well as racial and ethnic minorities. They told me these incredibly vivid stories about educators with whom they had significant, trusting relationships. These people had gone beyond the traditional role of educators by providing these women with additional opportunities. Those stories popped off the page, and that was the initial inspiration for the book.

How did you incorporate those stories into the book?

The women I spoke with were reflecting on their own experiences rather than catching their pivotal moments as they were unfolding. So, I went back into the field and collected some more data, and was able to put together a book that looked across the educational pipeline at how educator relationships can be productive and life changing. They are at their most productive when they are trusting, and when the institutional agents are advocating for students and transmitting academic knowledge. These types of relationships allow students to circumvent the sorting process of schools, or other bumps in the road that can create barriers, and obtain the information, resources and support they need to overcome the barriers and get on the path to college.

What are some of the successes and challenges that students face throughout the educational pipeline?

These relationships changed the way the students thought about college. As a result of these relationships, they not only realized that they could go to college, but they were getting the guidance, support and information they needed to navigate the application process at highly-selective schools. On the flip side, we interviewed students who didn’t have these types of relationships, students who were pushed out of the educational system. Their stories of not making it through the educational pipeline really highlighted the different challenges and barriers that low-income minority students face. For many, it’s a stopping point for them, and it reflects the inequalities throughout the education system.

What courses do you teach here at Pitzer?

I teach our introductory sociology course, Sociology and its View of the World. I also teach Sociology of Education and two different sections of Qualitative Research Methods. I teach a theoretical section of the course on Pitzer’s campus, and a more applied version for students involved in the Pitzer in Ontario program who are imbedded in internships and navigating the blurry line between researcher and practicioner.

Can you talk about your involvement with the Pitzer in Ontario program?

Dr. Susan Phillips recruited me for the program, and I was onboard from the get-go! I grew up in the Upland/Ontario area, so I know the area very well. The Ontario program allows students to take three courses and then choose an internship. A cohort of students participates in the program for an entire semester. It’s kind of like a study abroad program, but it’s a local opportunity for students to get involved, see social change on the ground and conduct research. The Ontario program introduces students to everything that’s going on in the Inland Empire. There are so many inequalities ranging from education to labor issues. The Ontario program makes students aware of what’s going on in their community. The Inland Empire is Pitzer’s community, and not enough is done there. There’s a lot of social activism going on now that’s starting to highlight the challenges that residents face.

What do you enjoy the most about working with Pitzer students?

Pitzer students are socially conscientious, and that’s one of the reasons why Pitzer’s social justice orientation is so successful. Our students’ mindfulness of challenging the status quo starts in the classroom and makes its way into practice outside of the classroom, within the larger community. That’s what I appreciate the most about working with Pitzer students. The conversations we have in the classroom are always mindful of going outside the bubble, and realizing that we need to connect these concepts with what’s going on in the world. Pitzer students ask really sharp questions that grapple with understanding social inequality. They then take their newfound knowledge and do something about it.

Are students ever frustrated by the inequality they encounter inside and outside of the classroom?

Well, sometimes it’s hard to stay hopeful in sociology! My students tease me and say, “This is totally bumming me out!” I tell them, “This is knowledge that you need in order to go out into the world and do something about the status quo.” I love the teachable moments that come out of those moments of frustration because I can help them shift that paradigm. My students are open and flexible…one of the things I love most about Pitzer is the flexibility we have together. We have opportunities to sponsor events on campus, plug into social issues on the ground and really do something about them.

Can you give me an example of a teachable moment where a student who was uncomfortable with the material opened their eyes and experienced an “A-Ha!” moment?

That happens all the time! I don’t know if there’s just one example. I see my role as being a facilitator of knowledge in the classroom. I try to help students unpack and scale up their “A-ha” moments so that they realize they are making connections. One of the first things I introduce in Sociology of Education is how to construct knowledge in the classroom. I ask the students to read three pieces about pedagogy, which is the theory and practice of teaching. I do this for two reasons: one, to introduce them to the way in which I conduct my class, which is democratic, student-structured and multicultural. Two, I’m introducing them to theories behind pedagogical construction. As we go through the articles, I facilitate the connections between the concepts. We read one piece that is very theoretical, and another that’s about a liberal arts college classroom, and deconstructing concepts of power and privilege. As I make the connections, I can see light bulbs going off about ideas that are great in theory, until you put them into practice. At the end of the class, students put characteristics on the board, under the header “Our Learning Community.” Everyone is thinking and being challenged, and we are collaboratively putting into practice what we were talking about. We were learning collaboratively. It was an amazing experience!

What’s one thing that prospective students should know about Pitzer?

They might be uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing. I always tell my students, “If you’re not uncomfortable at least once, then you’re not learning anything.” If a student feels uncomfortable with the material, it means that they’re thinking, being challenged, and pushing beyond their current knowledge. There are other aspects of college that will challenge students as well, like building interdisciplinary competencies and learning how to step outside of things. My advice is, be comfortable with being uncomfortable, whether it be academically, socially, or all of the different ways in which we experience college.

What projects are you working on currently?

In my last two books, I began grappling with the under-matching phenomenon, which refers to qualified low-income and minority students who don’t enroll at highly selective schools because they’re not getting the information, support or guidance they need to navigate the application process. These students may also lack knowledge about the variety of institutions that are open to them. In response to the under-matching phenomenon, I’ve put together a research project examining the Pitzer Pathways Initiative with the Pitzer Admission Office. I’m looking at how the initiative, which calls for admission counselors to reach out to community-based organizations in their recruitment territories, was experienced by both the counselors and the organizations to which they reached out.

What are you planning to do with the information you gather about the initiative?

I want to use the information to inform other schools about how initiatives like ours here at Pitzer can work successfully. I’m hoping to pull out lessons and best practices so that we as a nation can use that information to implement future programs. I’m also using a national data set that looks at students over time, and asks them about the experiences they had early in their schooling. There’s a specific question on the data set that asks about whom they received college information from, and the criteria they used to decide which college to attend. The study follows students for four to ten years out of school. I’m looking at where the students ended up based on who they received information from, and the criteria they used to make their decisions. I want to know if the students completed college, and what their career trajectory looks like as a result of finishing or not finishing college. I’m also curious about whether they went to a highly-selective or less-selective institution. I want to know what long-term career and life trajectories look like as a result of things that happened earlier in their schooling. I’m also looking at community-based organizations who are tackling the under-match problem. I’m hoping to find out what they’re doing, and how they exchange information about best practices amongst themselves. I want to know more about what they’re doing to facilitate discussions about what works in servicing low-income and minority students to help them gain access to higher education.

Click here for more information about Pitzer’s Sociology field group!