Sincronía Spring 2003

Teaching Hispanic College Students and Living in a Hispanic Area: Problems and Successes

Russell Eisenman

Department of Psychology, University of Texas-Pan American


It was with some misgivings that I took a job at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), a Hispanic-serving university. "Hispanic" is the word used here in South Texas, for the most part. In other parts of the nation, "Latino" is considered the correct word.

Things looked good to me. I liked the people I met when I interviewed there, and I had worked with Hispanics before, most recently in a California Youth Authority prison treatment program, and got along well with them (both prisoners and staff). But, I was concerned about going to a school where, at least in some circumstances, I would be a minority. I have done research on deviance (Eisenman, 1991). The person who is different is often seen as deviant and stigmatized by the main group. So, there is a danger of being in a situation where you are a minority in any way.

Also, people warned me in various ways. One fellow psychologist wrote to me "Do not take a job in a minority school." Another said about the undergraduate students at UTPA "They are godawful students." My mom said, "Since they are Hispanic, they will probably not be good students." And, in fact, their high school grades and test scores attest to their poor level of academic achievement. Which, however, is to be expected in this open admissions school. I taught once before at another open admissions school, and the students there also had poor academic records, even though they were not minority students.

It is true, though, that Hispanics, much like African Americans, tend to do poorly on academic or intelligence type tests, relative to other groups, such as whites or Asians. I have also taught at selective universities, and really enjoy working with smart students. But, here was the university that was willing to hire me. I could not take much more of unemployment, and the place seemed friendly, with lots of sunshine, which I like. I am a warm-weather person, and wonder, in retrospect, how I was able to endure my first 22 years in academia at Temple University, in the cold winters of Philadelphia.

So, while many complain of the brutal South Texas heat and humidity, I find it either likeable or at least much better than the cold I have experienced in other places, such as Philadelphia or northwestern Kentucky. The latter was on the Ohio River, right across from Indiana, and had snow and cold weather in the winter. Not for me.

Language Problems

It has been amazingly easy for me to fit into this new setting, even though the university has the second largest number of Hispanic students in the nation (behind only Florida International University, in Miami, Florida), and the city is 86% Hispanic. Many fellow Anglo colleagues have said that it took them a long time before they felt comfortable here. One said it took her three years. Not me. The worst problem has been language, when I have to interact with someone who does not speak English. Although the students are mostly bilingual, at least to some extent, people in the city of Edinburg—where the school is and where I live—sometimes do not speak English. Ditto for the surrounding Rio Grande Valley area.

When I had a sprinkler system installed at my new house (to avoid having to spend numerous amounts of time watering the lawn, which needs constant watering in this hot and humid South Texas heat) the installer spoke virtually no English. Almost everything worked out well, anyway. I had Spanish in high school and college, and know a very small amount of Spanish. He knew a few English words. Between out limited skills, we were able to communicate. Except for one thing. He did something wrong in programming the sprinkler system, so it not only went off at the programmed time of 8 PM, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but would go off again around 1 or 2 AM, and wake me up (as well as put too much water on the lawn). After a few months, I went through an intermediary to get the message to Pedro that the programming was wrong, and he came out and corrected it.

I also recently hired Pedro to be my new gardener, and fired the one who had been cutting my lawn and, twice I think, broke a sprinkler system pipe with his electric lawn mower, costing me $70. However, something has gone wrong, and my lawn in growing rapidly, after Pedro failed to show up on the appointed grass-cutting date. Our communication seemed perfect, as we used fingers to indicate the days of the week. But, something went wrong. He has not yet shown up. I may have to find the intermediary again, where Pedro works, to communicate this problem to him.

Part of my fitting in so well in this new, multicultural area, is that I enjoy knowing people from other cultures and learning from them. As an undergraduate college student I had friends from other countries, and had roommates from such exotic places as Korea, Peru, and New York City. Also, I like interesting food, at least to some extent. I really enjoyed Cajun food when I lived in Louisiana. I like Mexican food here, much more than I thought I would. This is mainly due to the quality of the food being very high, as opposed to generic Mexican food that one gets in other states. I found the food in Kentucky to be mostly boring.

What Motivates the Students?

One of my most important new insights has been what motivates students here to do well on tests. This was to be a major surprise, but I think I have solved the problem, at least to some extent.

One might expect the students to do poorly. UTPA only recently moved from being an open admissions school. Also, UTPA undergraduates come in with poor high school and test records. Fifteen percent were in the bottom 20% of their high school class, in terms of grades. Their average ACT score is 17, which is below the national average of about 21. The graduate students have very low GRE scores: an average of 383 on Verbal and 419 on Quantitative. However, I have found the graduate students perform much better than these scores would indicate, at least in my psychology classes. This article, though, is about the undergraduate students in my Introduction to Psychology classes, one taught in the Fall and one in the Spring semester.


The students come mostly from the Rio Grande Valley area, an area of great poverty, with all the negative effects this brings (Chen, 1993; Levesque, 2001; Simms, 1993). Some students live in Mexico and commute, mostly from Reynosa.

Along with poverty that is among the highest in the nation, this area also has, ironically, one of the highest growth rates in the nation, in terms of jobs, buildings, the expanding economy, etc. Poverty and growth usually do not go together. A large part of the expanding growth is due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opens up the border between Mexico and the United States to increased commerce (White, 1991).

The Initial Impression

All was going well in my Intro Psych class in the Fall. The students seemed attentive and interested in the subject matter. One bad sign: I had recommended that they take notes during the "lecture," (I try to have discussion and not just lecture the whole period) and few appeared to be doing so. But, other than that, all seemed well. Until, that is, I gave my first test, a multiple choice test covering about 3 chapters plus whatever was said in class. To my shock, half the students made a D or F on the exam. This suggested to me that they might not be learning anything. I talked with them about their poor performance, trying to discuss it in an adult fashion—we are working on doing better next time by finding out why things went bad this time--without putting them down. Grades were better on the next two exams, but not great.

For the Spring semester, I built upon what I learned in the Fall, and gave even more feedback to the students. I told them how badly the previous Intro Psych class had done, suggested they study more than they planned, and gave some specific tips, such as reading the chapters more than once, making sure they understood all the italicized terms, etc. This class did better on their first exam, but not greatly so. No one made an A.

Letting Them Know How I Feel

Since the first exam was all right but nothing to write home about, I was more impassioned. I told my class how I expected them to do much better on the second exam, and on the third and last exam. The third exam was our final, but I do not give cumulative finals, so it was, essentially, just another exam, coving everything since the second exam. I spoke with them about why they had not done better.

I asked them how many did the review at the end of each chapter. Almost none of them did. I pointed out that this would be something very helpful for them to do, and they should all do it. I pointed out that they were in college, which is different than high school, in that things may not be specifically assigned, but the student needs to do things to do well academically. In addition to giving feedback about how to study better, without putting them down, I showed that I was disappointed in their performance. I did not set out to show disappointment, but it was a concomitant of what I was saying. I really care about their doing well, and this came across.

The Second Exam

The second exam showed major improvement in test scores (as did the final). I could not believe how much better they had done. Instead of performing like people who were godawful students with low high school grades and ACT scores, they performed like they knew the material. I tried to find out what had changed, but about all I got was "We studied." Several students said that. They must have studied some previously, but, apparently, I got them to study much more in terms of time, and much more efficiently.

The Teacher as a Parent Figure

Why had these Hispanic students, presumably incapable of doing well, done so much better? I think it was because they are more attuned to what the professor feels about them than they are to standard reasons for academic success. Certainly some of the standard things come into play, such as my getting them to do the reviews at the end of each chapter. But, I think the teacher is a surrogate mother or father to them, and they want to please the teacher. This is totally different that what I have seen in nonHispanic students, when I have taught at other schools. It is a powerful tool that the professor has, but most do not realize they have it.

It is important to realize that the teacher exercising authority as a parent does not have to be authoritarian in nature. One could be, but one can also be an authority figure without the control implied in authoritarian dominance. One can show supportive control, as opposed to authoritarian control (Weinert & Helmke, 1995). The teacher has power, and exercising it involves control over others, but it does not have to be negative, or be control that takes away the ability of others to have individual responsibility and intrinsic motivation. In fact, the initial control by the teacher can inform the students, and, eventually, lead to greater freedom for them, as they learn things they did not know, and are thus in position to have new skills.

We must take into account cultural differences. This is so obvious it almost seems like it does not need saying. But, it does. In my case, I think the students did not have the kind of academic orientation that most other students in the nation have. But, their cultural beliefs instilled in them a great respect for parents and, I suspect, parental surrogates. Thus, as professor I had the power to get them to perform better if I, the "father," showed them that I wanted more from them.

It would be interesting to see if other professors find this kind of phenomenon, whereby the students will perform well for you, but not for the usual academic reasons, such as one should get good grades, or school is important, or one needs good grades for graduate school, etc. It would also be interesting to know if it is mostly a phenomenon of Hispanic students, or applies also to students from other cultures.

It has certainly made my job here more enjoyable, to figure out a way to avoid having half the class get D’s or F’s. These students have much more ability to achieve academically than first seemed to be the case. And, despite being in a new culture, in which I am often a minority, I find living here to be quite enjoyable


Chen, N. (1991, March). A comparative analysis of the effects of parental socialization upon the educational aspirations of male and female Mexican-Americans. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association, New Orleans, LA.

Eisenman, R. (1991). From crime to creativity: Psychological and social factors in deviance. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Levesque, R. J. R. (2001). Mis-diagnosing poor people? Policy Evaluation, 7 (2), 15-21.

Simms, B. (1991, March). Influencing factors on negative stereotyping of Hispanics. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association, New Orleans, LA.

Weinert, F. E., & Helmke, A. (1995). Learning from wise mother nature or big brother instructor: The wrong choice as seen from an educational perspective. Educational Psychologist, 30, 135-142.

White, R. (1991, March). The North American Free Trade Agreement. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association, New Orleans, LA.



I am grateful to colleagues James Aldridge and Israel Cuellar for insightful discussions. I alone am responsible for the ideas presented here. For correspondence, contact Russell Eisenman, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, TX 78539-2999, USA. E-mail: Phone: 956 381-3327.

Sincronía Spring 2003

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