Over the past few weeks, I had the pleasure of featuring some bilingual authors from Illinois who are doing some great work. From young adult fantasy novels featuring Latinx girls to a novel that helps young people heighten their environmental consciousness, Latinx authors in the Chicagoland are up to some great things!
But that’s not all. A group of Chicagoland educators are doing some great things for the Latinx community. One of them is Nancy Dominguez-Fret, who is featured on this post.
Nancy is a doctoral candidate in Literacy, Language and Culture in the College of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). She currently serves as the chair of the Spanish for Heritage Learners Special Interest Group for ACFTL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) and was recently awarded the prestigious Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. In fact, Nancy is the first recipient of this fellowship from UIC in nearly twenty years!
Nancy grew up in the Little Village neighborhood, on the Southwest side of Chicago. She identifies as a heritage speaker of Spanish and learned English in an elementary bilingual program. Since early childhood, she has frequently traveled to Jalisco, México, where both of her parents were born. She is a first-generation doctoral student and the mother of Sofía and Sebastián Fret; two bilingual MexiRicans. Nancy is a former high school Spanish teacher. She taught four levels of Spanish as a Heritage Language (SHL) at Bolingbrook High School for three years and currently teaches SHL at the College of Dupage. Nancy enjoys exploring the city of Chicago with her husband and two children, running and eating tacos.
Although there has been an increase of Latinxs going into academia (including myself!), roughly 7% of PhD recipients are Latinx. I’m currently on my third year and I’m on my way to taking qualifying exams this summer. It hasn’t been an easy journey! I will share more about my personal experiences in academia soon but I think it’s also important to share the perspectives of others that are on the journey beside me. Here are things from Nancy’s perspective:
What inspired you to become an educator?
I decided to become an educator because of my third-grade teacher, Mrs. García, who saw me not only as a student but also as a human being who was juggling being a student and her parents’ separation. As soon as she saw my grades were getting low, Mrs. García intervened, reached out to my mother and provided us with strategies to ensure my academic success. Mrs. García also provided me with a safe learning space that I will never forget. My experience as a student in her classroom during the most challenging years of my life, inspired me to want to become a maestra and treat students like she treated me; with love and respeto. As a heritage Spanish (HS) speaker, I grew up speaking Spanish at home. My mom ensured my siblings and I maintained our language by taking us to my family’s home country, México, and a Spanish speaking church frequently. During my high school days, I noticed many of my Latina/o/x friends hardly spoke Spanish and I did not understand why. Later, I discovered that over the last decade, Spanish fluency among U.S. Latina/o/x families has decreased with each generation. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that in 2006, 78% of all U.S. Latinos spoke Spanish at home, but this number decreased to 73% by 2015. Learning about this language shift inspired me to become a Spanish as a Heritage Language (SHL) teacher. I desired to encourage Latina/o/x students to maintain their Spanish and pass it on to future generations.
What inspired you to go into academia?
When I began teaching Spanish as a Heritage language (SHL) at Bolingbrook High School, I realized how unprepared I was to teach my own comunidad. I was prepared to teach Spanish as a Second Language (L2) but was never provided with the tools to teach SHL. Soon I realized that I was not alone, that most Spanish educators across the nation are not trained to teach SHL. This is a result of most preservice programs not requiring coursework that provides teachers with tools to teach in SHL classrooms. This leaves Spanish teachers who want to (or have to) teach SHL courses to simultaneously educate themselves about their students’ unique needs and build new curriculum without having any guidance or support. During those years, there was also a lack of professional development opportunities for SHL educators nationwide and this motivated me to enroll in a Ph.D. program at in the College of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago with the goal advocating for change in the systemic structure of Spanish preservice programs that center whiteness and exclude the needs of Latina/o/x Spanish speakers. Since then, I have given various workshops on designing culturally and linguistically sustaining SHL curriculum and have served as a consultant for school districts who aspire to develop SHL programs.
Describe your journey in academia. What has gone smoothly for you? What challenges have you faced in your journey?
I embarked on this journey with a 6 month old daughter and knew since the onset my journey was not going to be easy. I decided to apply to UIC because I had a strong desire to stay home and close to my family and comunidad en Chicago and because I knew there was potential to have an advisor that had similar research interests to mine and who was also a first-generation Latina scholar.
It has most definitely not been a smooth ride, I had my son during my second year in the PhD program and took a leave of absence. Aside from this, I had to look for my own funding for a couple of years, found it and continued my journey.
As a mother in academia, sometimes I feel like I am missing out on important experiences during this PhD journey, but with time I have learned I will always have to pick and choose what I participate in and that is totally fine. I think the most challenging time for me during this program was during the pandemic, when I lost all of my childcare, nonetheless, I was still able to defend my proposal and publish a chapter focused on my research with my advisor. How? I am not sure, but I promise it happened. Nonetheless, it was a very stressful time in my life. I am blessed to have a really strong support system, my husband, madre, hermanas, amigas, and academic advisor, I would not be where I am today without them and their constant support and encouragement.
Talk about Latinx representation in academia. What would you like to see more of in your field?
This is a really good question. Currently only 7% of individuals in academia are Latina/o/x. In my experience, academia can be a very white centered space, and not designed for students that look like us. Even in Spanish departments, most individuals in tenure track positions are not U.S. Latinxs. I would love to see this change and for more U.S. Latinxs to be in these positions. That’s one of the reasons I am passionate about completing my PhD because I want students to see themselves reflected and represented by their professors. I want my students to become the future of academia.
Describe your research interest(s). What inspired you to research this particular area in the field?
My dissertation research focuses on exploring the lived experiences, across the K-16 educational pipeline, of U.S. bilingual Latina/o/x teachers who teach Spanish as a Heritage Language (SHL). My research seeks to learn from participants’ narrative testimonios and explore how participants’ educational experiences inform their teaching practices. The results of my research will expand the scarce knowledge base in both Bilingual Education and SHL about the experiences of bilingual Latina/o/x students across the Pre-K-16 educational pipeline. My research also offers possibilities for changes in pre-service Spanish language programs–changes that are centered around humanizing and socially just pedagogies. Aside from my dissertation project, I also conduct research on the lack of access Latina/o/x communities have to Dual Language education programs in Chicago. One of the goals of my research is to collaborate with parents, educators and scholars to disseminate research on the benefits of bilingual education and call for the implementation of more rigorous and social justice-based Dual Language education programs in Chicago.
What advice would you give to other Latinas who are interested in going into academia but may feel intimidated or unsure where to start?
I am going to answer this question with a few consejos:
- Reach out to one of us already in academia and ask us questions before you make any decisions to enroll in programs and or get in debt or a degree.
- Find an academic mentor/ advisor who has similar research interests as yours. Do not choose an advisor because they are famous or have published extensively. Instead, talk to their students and ask them to share their experiences working with this individual. This is important because this person will work closely with you for your entire PhD journey.
- Find a PhD program with funding or potential for funding (e.g. T.A.ships )
- Most importantly YOU CAN DO IT. I was once questioning my potential and now I am almost at the finish line. Do not give up on your dreams.